PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Mitt Romney hoped to reinvigorate his presidential prospects with a victory in Maine’s GOP caucuses Saturday while Ron Paul reached for his first triumph in what shaped up as a two-man race because neither Newt Gingrich nor Rick Santorum actively competed in the state .
This contest received far less attention than others on the calendar so far, but emerged as a crucial opportunity for Romney, the early front-runner now trying to stabilize his campaign after embarrassing rout Tuesday in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. Santorum won all three, further exposing the problems Romney faces in uniting conservatives behind his bid to challenge President Barack Obama.
“I want to ask for your help today,” the former Massachusetts governor told Portland caucus-goers in a packed school auditorium. “If I get your vote, it’ll help me become our nominee. If I become our nominee, I’m going to beat this guy and bring America back.”
Romney visited two caucus sites Saturday after abandoning plans to take the day off. The change was evidence that his campaign can ill-afford another loss, particularly in a state so close to home and one that he won easily in his unsuccessful 2008 campaign for the nomination.
He also held a town hall-style meeting in Maine on Friday night. It was the first time he’d taken voter questions since campaigning in South Carolina last month.
But the stakes in Maine may be higher for Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman who has yet to win a single contest despite his vocal and deeply committed band of supporters. Paul hinted Saturday he may not stay in the race if his strategy of focusing on small, lower-cost caucus states such as Maine did not begin to bear fruit.
“I’m going to stay in as long as I’m in the race. And right now I’m in the race,” Paul said when asked whether he would stay in the race until the national convention in August.
Maine’s caucuses began Feb. 4 and have continued throughout the week. Party leaders planned to announce the results Saturday evening.
But there may be some questions about the results, particularly if the vote totals in the low-turnout contest were close, as expected.
Some Maine municipalities don’t vote until Sunday. Also, Washington County, in the state’s rural eastern region, postponed its caucuses until Feb. 18 because of a snow storm, disappointing some participants.
Helen Saccone, of Lubec, said those who wanted to caucus there should have had the chance. “It’s Maine. Life goes on when it snows in Maine,” she said.
The rural region is likely stronger territory for Paul, who has been more active than Romney in the state.
Maine’s nonbinding presidential straw poll had drawn virtually none of the hype surrounding recent contests in Florida and Nevada, where candidates poured millions of dollars into television and radio advertising.
Romney’s campaign had placed only a small cable television ad buy airing Friday and Saturday, at a cost of several thousand dollars. But he sent surrogates to the state in recent days and hosted a telephone town hall in addition to Friday’s campaign stop.
Romney consistently declined to criticize Paul, however.
Instead, he lobbed indirect criticism at Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, and Gingrich, a former House speaker, by repeating intensifying rhetoric of recent days that paints them as tainted Washington insiders.
“I have never spent a day in Washington working,” Romney said. “I expect to go there, get it fixed, and then go home.”
Paul made three appearances in the state Saturday, producing cheers and chanting at an early stop in Sanford. He acknowledged the significance of the Maine contest for his candidacy in particular.
Romney will “be better off if he wins it and I’m going to be a lot better off if I win,” Paul said. “So this will give me momentum and it will just maintain his. It’s a pretty important state as far as I’m concerned.”
But the contest comes at a critical time for Romney as well. Eager to prove he can assuage remaining skepticism among his party’s right flank, he said in a Washington speech Friday that he was “a severely conservative Republican governor.” Romney echoed that message in a subsequent campaign stop in Portland and in multiple appearances Saturday.
“In my home with my mom and dad I learned conservative values,” he said. “In my faith I learned conservative values. And in my business.”
Paul counts many conservatives as supporters as well. He won more than 18 percent of the Maine vote in his 2008 presidential bid, and his support has grown since then in a state whose electorate isn’t afraid to back candidates outside the mainstream.
With the next contests not until Feb. 28 in Arizona and Michigan, Romney hoped for a positive showing after arguably his worst week of the year.
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