Romney edges out Paul in Maine caucus contest

Mitt Romney captured two prizes in the Republican presidential race Saturday, edging out Ron Paul in the Maine caucuses while beating Rick Santorum in a key straw poll.

These small but well-timed victories help him regain momentum with a slew of major contests approaching.

The 2012 GOP candidates have few opportunities left to make a splash on the campaign trail before Super Tuesday, a set of 10 elections on March 6 where hundreds of delegates are at stake.

Romney was in a perilous position this week, after Santorum went three-for-three in contests held Tuesday and then started to surge in national polls.

Romney’s Maine victory doesn’t necessarily undercut Santorum’s achievements, as Santorum, along with Newt Gingrich, barely competed in Maine. But it further builds Romney’s delegate lead and helps cushion the blow of his losses earlier in the week.

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The Maine GOP announced Saturday evening that Romney received 39 percent of the vote in the state's nonbinding contest. Paul came in second, with 36 percent.

Just hours earlier, Romney also was declared the winner of the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He earned 38 percent to Santorum’s 31 percent.

In a written statement after the Maine results were announced, the former Massachusetts governor stressed his "outsider" status and private-sector record. With his three opponents all current or former members of Congress, Romney is trying to distinguish himself in that context.

"I am the only candidate in the race who has never served a day in our broken federal government. The voters of Maine have 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," he said.

Maine's race was squarely between Romney and Paul, as they were the only candidates to seriously contest the election. Romney won in 2008, but Paul devoted much time to the state in search of his first win of the 2012 primary season.

With only 5,500 people participating in the week-long Maine contest, the vote margin was slim. Romney received 2,190 votes; Paul received 1,996.

At his post-caucus rally in Portland, Paul predicted he could still win the state's delegate battle. Saturday's straw poll was just the first step toward allocating the state's 24 delegates. "Just remember the revolution is only beginning," Paul said. "We have a ways to go."

The results announced Saturday were also not technically complete, as some communities were holding caucuses later in the month. Still, the party only planned to count the results as of Saturday evening in the formal announcement.

Santorum placed third with 18 percent in Maine. Newt Gingrich was last with 6 percent.

Santorum and Gingrich, though, largely ignored the contest. Santorum is carefully choosing his targets, with the aim of pulling off decisive wins like he did in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Tuesday. Gingrich is focusing in the near-term on the 10 states holding primaries on March 6.

Romney refused to concede the state. The former Massachusetts governor visited two caucus sites on Saturday, while Paul also had several appearances. Gingrich and Santorum took the day off.

The Romney-Paul contest was unusual in that the two rarely spar or engage each other, on the debate stage or in ads. The nastiest campaign trail talk has been between Romney and Gingrich.

The Maine contest had none of the vitriol that characterized prior contests, particularly South Carolina, which Gingrich won, and Florida, which Romney won.

But the race still marked one of the few one-time opportunities the candidates would have to gain national attention before the Super Tuesday elections. Before then, Arizona and Michigan are holding primaries on February 28. Washington state holds caucuses shortly after that.

Click here to see results from the Maine caucuses.