Romney looks to end losing streak in Maine, faces competition from Paul

The clamor of the Republican presidential primary race gave way Saturday to an off-the-beaten-path contest in Maine which appears to be a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul -- rivals who don't have much to say about one another but would nevertheless cherish a victory.

Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman with a loyal following, is looking for his first win of the primary season. The relatively small scale of the Maine caucuses, a contest he's invested a lot of time in, could give him his best opportunity yet.

"I'm feeling very good," Paul told Fox News on Saturday, saying the GOP primary race looks to be in "disarray."

But Romney, the presumptive frontrunner in the race, wants to avoid a fourth straight election loss. Rick Santorum went three-for-three in Tuesday's contests, reviving his flagging campaign and once again stoking questions about Romney's conservative appeal.

Santorum and Newt Gingrich largely ignored the Maine contest, which marks the first step toward allocating the state's 24 delegates. Santorum is carefully choosing his targets, with the aim of pulling off decisive wins like he did in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. Gingrich is focusing in the near-term on the 10 states holding primaries on March 6.

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There is no reliable polling to gauge the state of the Maine election, which drew fewer than 5,500 voters from across the state four years ago. But Romney's recent activities suggest a victory is by no means assured, despite the natural advantages of being a former New England governor competing in a state he won with more than 50 percent of the vote four years ago. He changed his schedule Friday night to add personal appearances at two caucuses Saturday; he had planned to take the day off.

The Romney-Paul contest is 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.

All four candidates are also awaiting the results of another contest Saturday -- a straw poll among leading conservatives. The Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington will announce the results of that voting late Saturday afternoon. Paul won the poll the last two years, though Romney was the winner in 2008 and 2009.

Romney faced a rowdy crowd at a town hall-style meeting in Portland Friday night, where one heckler was removed by police. Others asked pointed questions about his off-shore bank accounts, feelings about the nation's poor, and his continued support for the natural gas extraction process known as fracking.

"That's a good question. I gotta take some shots now and then or it wouldn't be interesting," Romney said when asked about investments in the Cayman Islands. "I pay all the taxes I'm required to pay under the law -- by the way, not a dollar more."

The nonbinding Maine presidential straw poll, which began Feb. 4, has drawn virtually none of the hype surrounding recent elections in Florida and Nevada, where candidates poured millions of dollars into television and radio advertising.

Paul scheduled three public appearances in Maine on Saturday. The Texas congressman did reasonably well in the state four years ago, earning more than 18 percent of the vote, and his support has grown since then in a state whose electorate isn't afraid to support candidates outside the mainstream.

The timing of the contest also raises the stakes.

The narrative coming out of Maine will likely reverberate in the political echo chamber for weeks, given there isn't another election until Arizona and Michigan host their contests Feb. 28.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.