Mitt Romney narrowly won Maine's Republican caucuses, state party officials announced Saturday, providing his campaign with a much-needed boost after three straight losses earlier this week. But the former Massachusetts governor won just a plurality of the Maine vote, suggesting he still has work to do to unite GOP voters behind his candidacy.
At a gathering in Portland, state Republican Chairman Charlie Webster announced Romney had won with 2,190 votes, or 39 percent, compared to 1,996 - about 36 percent - for Ron Paul, the only other candidate to aggressively compete in the state. Rick Santorum received 989 votes and Newt Gingrich won 349, but neither actively campaigned there. Other candidates drew 61 votes.
The totals reflected about 84 percent of the state's precincts. Webster insisted that any caucus results that come in after Saturday wouldn't be counted no matter how close the vote.
"Some caucuses decided not to participate in this poll and will caucus after this announcement," Webster said. "Their results will not be factored in. The absent votes will not be factored into this announcement after the fact."
Romney's win, combined with his victory in the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington hours earlier, helped slow an embarrassing skid that began Tuesday when he lost contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado to Santorum. The twin triumphs dampened the perception - for now - that conservatives were unwilling to support Romney.
Romney's campaign has demonstrated skill and flexibility in winning a big state like Florida and eking out a victory in a low-turnout contest like Maine, where organization and voter contact are essential. Out of Maine's 258,000 registered Republicans, nearly 5,600 cast ballots in the weeklong contest.
But questions about Romney's durability as the party's presumed front-runner persist. Fully 61 percent of Maine voters selected another candidate than Romney in a state practically in his back yard. And Romney's showing was down considerably from 2008, when he won 51 percent of the vote.
Maine's caucuses began Feb. 4 and continued throughout the week. Several communities elected to hold their caucuses at a later date.
Caucuses in Washington County that had been scheduled for Saturday were postponed until Feb. 18 because of a major snowstorm that blanketed the region. Earlier, party Executive Director Michael Quatrano said county officials had been told the results of that caucus would not count toward the total.
But Washington County GOP Chairman Chris Gardner objected, saying he had known his county's tally wouldn't be included in Saturday's announcement but didn't realize it wouldn't be counted at all. He said he had called state party leaders and "expressed my complete and utter dismay."
Gardner, a Romney supporter, said the snowstorm had left him no choice but to postpone the caucuses.
"Refusal to reconsider under those circumstances would be extremely disheartening," he told The Associated Press. "I trust that the party will make the right decision here."
He added, "We will proceed next Saturday. We'll have our vote and we are going to submit it to the state party for them to reconsider."
Many Paul supporters were angry.
"There's a very good chance that you'll find that Washington County goes for Ron Paul," said Mark Willis, a county coordinator for the Paul campaign.
His wife, Violet, added, "We don't want to be disenfranchised."
Webster told reporters there were less than 200 votes in Washington County and he doubted that including them would have changed the outcome.
Speaking to supporters in Portland, Paul expressed disappointment that only a portion of the state's caucuses had counted toward the total.
"I wish all the caucuses had met today," Paul said, adding, "It's almost like we could call it a tie."
Romney was attending a fundraiser in California late Saturday, after visiting caucus sites in Maine earlier in the day, where he pressed voters for their backing.
"I thank the voters of Maine for their support," Romney said in a statement late Saturday. "I'm committed to turning around America. And I'm heartened to have the support of so many good people in this great state."
Romney visited two caucus sites Saturday after abandoning plans to take the day off. The change made clear that his campaign could ill-afford another loss.
Romney 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.
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."
He added, "In my home with my mom and dad I learned conservative values. In my faith I learned conservative values. And in my business."
Romney won 11 delegates in Maine and Texas Rep. Ron Paul won 10, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were shut out.
This program aired on February 11, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.