In a reprieve after his embarrassing losses last week in three states, Mitt Romney eked out a win Saturday in the symbolic straw poll tied to Maine's multiday caucuses, narrowly defeating Ron Paul, the only other candidate to actively campaign there.
The peculiar and complex Republican contest in Maine — where some towns held their caucuses as early as January and others will caucus after Saturday's straw poll — was once viewed as an afterthought because many observers expected Romney to have the nomination all but sewn up by now.
Instead, after his losses to Rick Santorum in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Tuesday, Maine's caucuses became a closely watched test of the former Massachusetts governor's organizational strength — drawing him to the Pine Tree State on Friday for two days of hastily arranged campaigning.
In the poll measuring the preferences of about 5,500 caucus participants, Romney won with 39% to 36% for Paul, a Texas congressman; they were separated by fewer than 200 votes.
Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, finished third with 18%, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was fourth with 6%. Neither Santorum nor Gingrich actively campaigned in Maine, choosing to husband their resources for a series of far-flung contests on Feb. 28 and March 6—Super Tuesday—when about 400 delegates will be at stake.
In announcing the results, Maine GOP Chairman Charlie Webster repeatedly emphasized that they were a snapshot of voter preferences from cooperating caucuses and would not determine the state's allocation of its 24 delegates, which will occur in May at the state convention.
The results, however, were a blow to Paul, who had hoped to notch his first win of the 2012 cycle, but he told supporters gathered in Portland on Saturday evening that he considered the result a near-win because some of the caucuses favorable to him did not participate in the straw poll.
"It's almost like we could call it a tie," Paul said. "I would bet that we will control the Maine caucus when we go to [the Republican National Convention in] Tampa," he said to cheers, alluding to diligent work by his aides behind the scenes to secure delegates.
"It would have been great to win outright the straw vote," he said, "but it will even be greater to win the delegate vote, and that's going to happen. The momentum is going to continue and we're not going away."
Romney's win in Maine and earlier in the day in another straw poll at a conservative gathering in Washington made for a better-than-expected finish to what had been a rough week. His campaign said that the win among attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference was evidence that conservatives were coalescing behind Romney after having been suspicious for years about his bona fides. In a written statement on the Maine results, Romney said he was "heartened to have the support of so many good people in this great state."
"The voters of Maine have sent a clear message that it is past time to send an outsider to the White House, a conservative with a lifetime of experience in the private sector, who can uproot Washington's culture of taxing and spending and borrowing and endless bureaucracy," he said.
Though Romney hails from nearby Massachusetts and pulled off a resounding win in neighboring New Hampshire last month, Paul's operatives believed that Maine was fertile territory for his campaign because of its libertarian streak, its antipathy toward government and the increasing strength of tea-party-affiliated voters who drove Republican Gov. Paul LePage to victory in 2010.
Paul was viewed as particularly strong in some of the blue-collar, conservative strongholds of Maine's 2nd Congressional District, which stretches to the Canadian border and includes the vast majority of the state's territory, and he began courting Maine voters long before his opponents. He set up an organization in the fall and made multiple visits to the state while his opponents focused on more delegate-rich states like Florida. Romney put a few staffers in Maine two weeks ago and did a sprinkling of radio ads and at least one television spot in the final days before the straw poll.
In his two-day visit to the state, Romney focused on voters in the Portland area, which is home to some of the state's more cosmopolitan and moderate Republican voters. But already looking ahead to the Feb. 28 contests in Arizona and Michigan, he did not hold an election night party in Maine and will instead head west for a Monday rally in Mesa, Ariz.
Santorum heads to Washington state, where caucuses will be held March 3, for a rally in Tacoma on Monday night, and he will campaign later in the week in Michigan. Gingrich is looking ahead to the March 6 primary states, including Ohio, where he campaigned last week, but he has not yet announced his schedule for the coming week.