Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney ended what had been the worst week of his campaign with a quick one-two Saturday — winning the Maine caucuses hours after placing first in a closely watched straw poll of conservative leaders and activists.
In Maine, Romney squeaked out a tight win over Texas Rep. Ron Paul in that state’s Republican presidential caucuses, taking 39% of the vote to Paul’s 36%. He had gone 0-for-3 in Tuesday’s contests in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, which all went to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Santorum himself came in second in Saturday’s poll of attendees at the much watched Conservative Political Action Conference, with 31% of the vote compared to 38% for the former Massachusetts governor.
Romney’s campaign released a statement after the Maine results were announced early Saturday evening, thanking the state’s voters and continuing to tout his conservative principles as he had at the Washington conference.
“We stand for conservative principles, liberty and prosperity. All of these are under threat. I’m in this race because I believe that America can be turned around, that we don’t have to accept unemployment over 8%, a national debt that is as large as our entire economy, and a president who, even as his own policies fail, apologizes for America’s past successes,” the statement read.
“We’ve had enough. It’s time to reverse Barack Obama’s legacy of domestic disarray and foreign-policy weakness,” it added.
For Paul, the 3-point margin in Maine was the closest he has come to victory in the 2012 campaign. Still, he’s 0-for-9 in the campaign so far as the only one of four GOP contenders not to win a state.
“Just remember, the revolution is only beginning,” Paul told cheering supporters after the results were announced. “The momentum is going to continue, we’re not going away. We’re going to be in all these places where we’re going to pick up, continue to pick up the delegates, for one good reason — we have the message that America needs at this particular time.”
He has said his strategy is to compete in states like Maine, where he can be competitive, and gather up delegates while bypassing others to save time and money. Ultimately, he says, that will keep him in the race until the Republican National Convention in August.
“We’re going to continue like we are doing the smaller states, the caucus states where we can accumulate delegates,” Paul told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Saturday night.
Paul said that he might compete in some primary states where votes are awarded proportionately rather than winner-take-all states. “If there is a good chance in one of the very expensive states and it is proportional, we will be in those states,” he said, explaining his strategy.
Asked if he felt the race was Romney’s to lose, Paul responded, “I think he’s pretty much there — he does have the money and the organization.”
But, Paul continued, “He just doesn’t have the enthusiasm that I think we have been able to get in our crowds, you know, really excited about what he believes in. I think that’s his biggest problem.”
Earlier Saturday, Romney visited caucus sites in Maine, something he hadn’t done up to this point in the campaign.
“I want to be your nominee. I want to beat President Obama,” he told caucus-goers in Sanford. “I believe I can. I believe I’m the one person in this race who actually can beat this president. I believe it’s essential that we beat this president. That we take America back and that we keep America as it’s always been — the hope of the earth.”
Maine’s caucuses are non-binding, meaning the state’s 21 delegates will be allocated later. The state GOP encouraged municipalities to hold their caucuses between February 4 and 11, but some began in late January. One county representing about 2% of the vote was not able to complete its caucuses because of a heavy snowfall.
The contest was open only to registered Republicans, though independents and unregistered voters were able to register as Republicans on Saturday to participate.
After gaining some momentum with wins in Florida and Nevada, Romney went 0-for-3 on Tuesday while Santorum won in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.
Santorum and Newt Gingrich did not actively compete in the Maine contest, as Paul was the only candidate who had recently campaigned in Maine. But after his triple losses Tuesday, Romney held a town hall in Portland — his first visit to the Pine Tree state this entire election cycle — then added events on Saturday morning.
That instantly set up a two-man contest between Romney and the Texas congressman Paul, who has a loyal libertarian following.
Romney has deep ties in the state: He won its caucuses in 2008, and has long been active in the state’s Republican politics as a leading political figure in nearby Massachusetts.
Until recently, the race seemed to be Paul’s for the taking. As his opponents took hot pursuit of delegates in other states, Paul packed up his V-neck sweaters and headed north — campaigning over two days in Maine in late January in the run-up to the Florida primary.
Huge crowds, a loyal following and the state’s caucus system — which emphasizes open discussion and persuasion over closed voting — seemed to give Paul the edge.
Paul started Saturday at the same caucus site that Romney will attend — though the two didn’t cross paths, their speaking times to caucus-goers about 45 minutes apart. He attended two other caucus sites later in the day.
At Romney’s Portland town hall, the candidate steered clear of naming Santorum and Gingrich. Instead, Romney continued to train his fire on the man holding the office he seeks, blasting Obama’s economic and domestic policies.
Yet Romney also came under fire from hecklers who persisted in pestering him and peppering him with questions. At various turns, a heckler screamed that “Romneycare” was the blueprint for “Obamacare,” insisted the nation’s financial system needed to be regulated and — at one point — accused Romney of “not telling the truth” on certain issues.
The candidate would have none of it. Romney engaged the heckler — and others who later joined in — by directly challenging their assertions.
“It was a wonderful reception in Maine,” Romney said when asked why he got such a tough reaction from the crowd. “Of course, there are always going to be people who are in favor of President Obama. But if people want to replace President Obama, they’re going to vote for me.”