Stung by a series of defeats earlier this week, Mitt Romney got a much-needed boost Saturday with a win in the straw poll of the Conservative Political Action Conference and a victory in Maine's nonbinding caucuses.
Yet Romney walked away without delegates and tallied fewer votes there than he did four years ago. This time, he barely beat rival Ron Paul.
Both candidates spent the morning wooing voters at caucuses in southern Maine. For Romney, a visit to a Portland elementary school Saturday followed a town hall-style meeting Friday night — his first in several weeks. In both places, he hammered home his commitment to conservative values.
"I have battled for religious liberty, and if I'm president of the United States, I will preserve the religious rights and liberties of Americans and protect our constitutional rights," he said.
As the former governor of Massachusetts, Romney is well-known in Maine. He handily won the state's caucuses in 2008, but until his defeats earlier this week, he was absent from the state. Paul, meanwhile, visited the state several times and built a well-organized grassroots campaign.
"I feel very good. I have a lot of friends up here, a lot of excitement, and they sort of like my message," Paul said.
Paul says his message of freedom and less government seems to resonate well in Maine, better than in other parts of the country. Lewiston resident Nancy O'Brien showed up at her caucus to register support for Paul.
"He's the first honest politician going," she says.
O'Brien says she considered voting for Romney but was put off by comments he made about the poor.
"For Mitt Romney to stand up there saying he's not that concerned about the poor people or the little people — I'm sorry," she says, "There's thousands of us out there. We live from paycheck to paycheck."
Still, others view Romney's business and government experience as the best qualifications for the job. Rich Petersen of South Portland walked into Romney's town hall meeting Friday night undecided and says he walked out a convert.
"I was very impressed with the governor. I thought he did a fantastic job of answering some very direct questions," Peterson says.
Romney beat Paul by a margin of 39 to 36 percent. Rick Santorum finished third, despite never making a visit here. Paul's campaign complained that one caucus, in rural Washington County, was called off because of a snowstorm. Paul Madore, chairman of the Ron Paul campaign in Maine, says it was a deliberate effort by Romney supporters in Maine's GOP leadership to give the governor a boost.
"I think you'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to see it, really," he says.
Madore says Washington County offered potentially strong support for Paul. Maine's GOP chairman, Charlie Webster, says there's no way everyone who would have turned out at the caucus would have voted for Paul. He calls the campaign's allegations "unfortunate."
In May, Maine Republicans will choose 24 delegates to represent them at the national convention. The Paul campaign has now set its sights on winning those.