Remember, There's Maine
"I think I have a natural connection with the people of Maine. Mainers tend to be fiscally conservative, and as governor of a state next door, Massachusetts, they know that I was the guy that balanced the budget all four years and lowered taxes 19 times. So I think I've got a good chance of getting support from our friends in Maine."
-- Mitt Romney in an interview with WCSH of Portland, Maine.
Maine Republicans will on Saturday evening announce the results of precinct-level straw polls taken at 36 of 39 caucuses being held across the state's 16 counties. (The other three caucuses are scheduled for later this month or next month).
The same rules apply here as in the handful of other non-binding caucus states. The state's 24 delegates to the Republican National Convention will be selected at conventions on the congressional-district and statewide levels and aren't bound to any particular candidate.
But the straw polls taken by the party at the precinct caucuses where the delegate selection process begins provides an indication of the preferences of the pool of party activists from which the eventual delegates will be chosen.
And wherever there is a contest to be won or lost, some candidates will show up.
Earlier this week, Republican frontrunner former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was contending with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who was contesting the straw poll votes in Minnesota and Colorado as well as a delegate-stripped, non-primary in Missouri.
Romney, who followed a similar strategy when he was running as an insurgent in 2008, was drawn into these fights for fear of giving Santorum too easy a path to publicity in low-turnout, delegate-free events. Plus, with a delegate race that could actually be very close, Romney has to be concerned about doing what he can to get his people to Tampa.
But in the end, Romney was embarrassed by his poor showings against a candidate who had until then been running third in the polls. That prompted the next round of stories about Romney's vulnerabilities and weakness with the Republican base as he lost contests he won last time around. When Romney was chasing John McCain in 2008, the frontrunner refused to engage in these straw poll contests and blew off Romney's eight caucus wins. That's not something Romney is willing to do. Romney likes to point out that McCain lost 18 states (11 to Romney), but in most of them, McCain wasn't competing.
This weekend, Romney will box with Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the only other candidate to seriously contest Maine's straw poll.
But what a thing for a Republican frontrunner to try to win. The caucuses started on Jan. 29, so who knows what attitudes the straw polls may reflect. There will possibly be fewer than the 5,430 caucus-goers who participated in 2008 when insurgent Romney tried to spring his caucus trap on frontrunner McCain. The events themselves are mostly tiny affairs, one will be held in the home of a local party activists.
This is not territory well suited to a well-heeled Republican frontrunner. You can't poll it, you can't win it with a barrage of negative ads and it isn't even really an election.
Paul, who is passing up the Conservative Political Action Convention in Washington today to head directly to Maine, is on very favorable turf for the same reason Romney finds himself at a disadvantage. You've got to be a passionate supporter to make your voice heard in a non-binding straw poll held in a stranger's house on a February night in Maine. Does that sound more like a Paulista or a Romneyite?
But Romney is refusing to let Maine go without a fight and has started airing commercials there and will head to the Black Bear State immediately after his speech at CPAC today.
While challengers Newt Gingrich and Santorum will go on ahead to campaign in states that will award delegates following primaries that resume at the end of this month, Romney will be scrapping with Paul for a handful of poll participants at the American Legion in Yarmouth.
Romney's intensely negative campaign and "refuse-to-lose" attitude about these low-yield caucuses has left him in a place where Republican voters seem to be genuinely enjoying his ongoing discomfort. Romney is betting he will get his mojo back once consequential contests resume again, but his detour through Nevada, Minnesota, Colorado, Missouri and Maine, may leave him with a four-contest losing streak and a tougher task when the delegate race resumes.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.