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Maine, Virginia Lead Today’s Calendar

Voters head to the polls in four states today, with Democratic primaries in Virginia and Maine dominating the headlines.

For Virginia Democrats, the best show in town will be the 11th district race between former Rep. Leslie Byrne and Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly.

A Byrne victory today will be considered an upset, but less so than it would have been six months ago.

Even before Connolly announced in January that he was forming an exploratory committee, his interest in the Congressional seat was well-known and he was being solicited to enter the race by party leaders.

Connolly oversees a budget of $4.5 billion dollars in a county that, based on size, would be the nation’s 13th-largest city, so supporters had high expectations for his fundraising potential. His strong showings in county races dating back to the mid-1990s also showed that he was a force to be reckoned with and a man with established name identification, at least in local elections.

But Byrne, who jumped into the race last year to win back the seat she lost in 1994, didn’t collapse when Connolly decided to enter the race. Instead, she fought back against what early polls showed to be a wide lead for Connolly, and she’s made the contest competitive.

Byrne, who has served in the state Senate and ran an unsuccessful campaign for lieutenant governor in 2005, was never blown away in the money race. Connolly has outraised Byrne overall, according to pre-primary reports, but with the help of the pro-abortion-rights group EMILY’s List, Byrne actually had more cash on hand than Connolly with three weeks to go in the campaign.

Byrne has also gone on the attack — which Connolly supporters say is a sure sign that she’s behind — seeking to tie Connolly to wealthy developers and corporate interests. She says those groups are the real money behind Connolly’s campaign.

Several liberal blogs have also come out for Byrne in recent weeks, and their attacks on Connolly have increased as they work to paint Byrne as the true Democrat in the race.

Meanwhile, nine Members of Congress — most of whom belong to the House Out of Iraq Caucus — have endorsed Byrne. Her most important endorsement has come from Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.).

But Connolly is not without big name support of his own. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) and former Virginia Rep. Herb Harris (D) have both come out for the one-time staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

And while Byrne has EMILY’s List, Connolly has his own outside supporters, such as the Service Employees International Union, who have dropped tens of thousands of dollars in independent expenditures on his behalf.

The winner of the Democratic primary will be favored in the general election against Republican Keith Fimian. Although the seat has been held since 1995 by retiring Republican Rep. Tom Davis, the suburban Washington, D.C., district has only become more ethnically and racially diverse since President Bush won it by a little more than 2,000 votes in 2004. While Davis remains popular in the district, Fimian, a businessman who has raised more than $900,000, is not well-known.

In Maine’s 1st district, a crowded field means the Democratic nomination could be anyone’s. Six Democrats are seeking to follow in the footsteps of Rep. Tom Allen (D), who is running for Senate.

Former Common Cause President Chellie Pingree (D) earned the title of frontrunner for most of the campaign.

According to Jim Melcher, a politics professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, Pingree has run an “above the fray” campaign: mostly avoiding attacking her opponents, while they took aim at her — and each other.

“She’s been the candidate for most of the race that the other candidates tend to compare themselves to,” Melcher said.

State Sen. Ethan Strimling (D) is one of those candidates who has taken aim at Pingree and more recently, at Iraq War veteran Adam Cote (D). Often seen as Portland’s liberal darling, Strimling attacked Pingree for her out-of-state campaign donations.

Strimling took aim at Cote for his unconventional support from groups that don’t often back Democrats, such as business associations.

“I think Adam Cote has made up a lot of ground …” Melcher said. “He was one of the least-known candidates coming in, and he’s been attracting support from the more conservative wing of the party.”

Cote is to the right of the rest of the Democratic field when it comes to issues such as the war and impeaching President Bush. Though the district leans left, it’s possible that Cote, as the lone conservative Democrat, could prevail in the crowded field.

Former Senate Majority Leader Michael Brennan is probably furthest to left among the candidates: He has even solicited Green Party support for the primary.

It’s also possible that York County District Attorney Mark Lawrence could take his home county and have a shot at winning. York County is less populous than Portland, which is where Pingree, Strimling and Brennan have their base. Physician Steve Meister is also running, but he is unlikely to win, according to observers.

However, with comparatively low turnout compared to other Pine Tree State elections, anything could happen in a closed primary.

The Maine secretary of state’s office projected that 30 percent to 35 percent of voters will turn out today, which means just 100,000 Democrats will head to the polls.

For the Republicans, two candidates have been in a primary fight for the nod: Businessman Dean Scontras and 2004 GOP nominee Charlie Summers. The winner of the Democratic primary is expected to take the seat in the general election this fall.

In South Carolina, the primaries aren’t particularly competitive, but that didn’t stop presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) from cutting two broadcast ads for Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) ahead of Tuesday’s Palmetto State primary.

“Lindsey Graham is a reformer who is willing to take a stand and tackle the tough issues,” McCain says in one recent television spot. “He’s guided by conservative principles — like appointing conservative judges and keeping taxes low.

Despite drawing fire from conservative activists earlier in the cycle, Graham is expected to easily best Republican National Committeeman Buddy Witherspoon in today’s contest.

The lawmaker also likely faces no serious competition in November en route to a second term.

Meanwhile, in North Dakota, Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D) is already ticketed for a November showdown with former Navy SEAL Duane Sand (R).

Matthew Murray contributed to this report.

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