Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the Maine Republican presidential caucuses and a straw poll of conservative activists Saturday, victories he hopes will put his campaign back on track and help him regain momentum after losing three nominating contests last week.
The Republican party of Maine declared Romney the winner of a presidential survey of voters attending the state’s local caucuses. And Romney also came out on top in a poll of activists attending the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Romney will not be awarded delegates from the wins, though the Maine results could be mirrored at a state convention in May where the state’s 24 delegates will be awarded.
Still, taken together, the dual wins are likely to give a boost to Romney, who had faced tough questions in the last week about whether his campaign can excite the conservative base of the Republican party.
In Maine, Romney won 39 percent of the poll votes; Texas Rep. Ron Paul took 36 percent of the vote, while former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum captured 18 percent. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich won 6 percent.
In a statement, Romney said the voters of Maine “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.”
The tiny Maine race — fewer than 5,600 votes were cast — had taken on increased importance in recent days as Romney had faced new worries about his ability to unite the Republican party after losing to Santorum in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado on Tuesday.
Maine was Romney’s only chance to reset the race’s narrative for more than two weeks and a loss in the Northeastern state would have been another setback for his campaign.
Republicans will not vote again until the critically important primaries in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28, followed by Super Tuesday on March 6, when 10 states will hold elections.
Romney held a significant advantage in key Maine endorsements. But Paul had aggressively worked the state’s grass roots in hopes of snagging his first win of the presidential primary season in Maine.
At the straw poll conducted at the CPAC event in Washington, Romney won 38 percent of the 3,408 votes cast, giving him a healthy cushion over the 31 percent won by Santorum. Gingrich won 15 percent of the vote and Paul took 12 percent.
Romney’s good day is unlikely to put to rest continued questions from the right wing of the party about his candidacy.
Top conservative activist Richard A. Viguerie in a Saturday statement scoffed at Romney’s description of his own tenure as Massachusetts governor as “severely conservative” in a Friday speech to CPAC.
Viguerie insisted that in 50 years of work in Republican politics, he’d never heard Romney described that way.
“Romney has shown, once again, that he can mouth the words conservatives use, but he has no gut-level emotional connection with the conservative movement and its ideas and policies,” said Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.com, who has endorsed Santorum.
And in a Saturday speech at CPAC, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who retains strong support in the conservative base, dismissed calls for a quick end to the Republican contest.
“In America, we believe that competition strengthens us. Competition elevates our game,” she said.
She said the party’s candidate “must be someone who can instinctively turn right to constitutional conservative principles. It’s too late in the game to teach it or to spin it at this point. It’s either there or it isn’t.”
For both Romney and Paul, there had in some ways been more to lose in Maine than to win.
Romney could ill afford a fourth consecutive loss, an outcome that would have probably been seen as fresh evidence that he was having trouble consolidating all wings of the Republican party around his effort.
That would have been especially true in Maine, where Romney had defeated Sen. John McCain in 2008 by more than 30 points.
Paul too had something to lose in Maine — failing to pull off a win in a state with an independent-minded electorate that might be inclined to embrace his libertarian policies, will probably be seen as final confirmation that Paul can never serve as a threat to the race’s front-runners. But he brushed off the defeat with supporters in Portland.
“Just remember, the revolution is only beginning,” he said, saying the results were close enough that it’s “almost like we could call it a tie.”
Paul said he expects that when Maine delegates are formally selected at a state party convention, he will end up with more delegates to the Republican National Convention than Romney.
Santorum and Gingrich both essentially bypassed the northern state.
Under Maine’s unusual rules, small towns have been holding caucuses over the course of several weeks, beginning Jan. 29, a setup that made the state more immune to the shifting tides of national momentum that have repeatedly disrupted this year’s topsy-turvy Republican contest.
Romney had also given the state some last-minute personal attention, addressing about 400 people at a town hall meeting in Portland on Friday and speaking on his own behalf at three caucus sites on Saturday.
“I think [he’s] the man that’s going to get Barack Obama out of the White House,” said Greg Jennings, a 60-year-old retiree and longtime Romney supporter from Biddeford who came to hear Romney speak. “That’s the main thing.”
But Romney was also repeatedly challenged by hecklers during his Friday evening town hall and the event drew protesters outside.
“Massachusetts, Spirit of America?” said Gary Harvey, 52, of Woolwich, quoting the slogan on the Bay State’s license plate. “I hope not!”
Harvey, among a handful of protesters who greeted Romney outside of the waterfront Portland Company Marine Complex on Friday night, said he was a libertarian but registered as a Republican to vote for Paul.
He said he attended his own caucus last week, together with about 10 friends and his “whole family” of Paul supporters.
Sonmez reported from Maine.