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Last updated: February 12, 2012 5:15 am
Mitt Romney won the Republican caucuses in the state of Maine on Saturday, breaking a string of losses and restoring some much-needed momentum into his bid to challenge Barack Obama for the presidency in November.
Mr Romney, whose frontrunner status suffered a blow after he had lost three states in the past week, beat his closest competitor in the state, the libertarian Ron Paul, in what was essentially a two-man race.
A former governor of the fellow New England state of Massachusetts, Mr Romney won 39 per cent of the vote, while Mr Paul had 36 per cent.
“Tonight, I thank the voters of Maine. I’m committed to turning around America and am heartened to have the support of so many,” Mr Romney tweeted after the results were announced.
Mr Romney, who won Maine during his presidential bid four years ago, had campaigned fervently over recent days, apparently concerned that Mr Paul, who has a significant support base in the state, could do better than expected.
The two men were the only candidates actively campaigning and with strong ground operations in the state, required to navigate the complex caucus system.
Rick Santorum, the most socially conservative of the presidential hopefuls and the surprise winner of ballots in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri this week, took 18 per cent, while Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, trailed with about 6 per cent.
In an electoral idiosyncrasy, Maine’s 16 counties have been voting in caucuses since February 4.
But the results of the caucuses are not binding, meaning that the state’s 24 delegates will not be bound to vote for the winning candidate when they attend the Republican party convention in August.
Mr Romney needs 1,144 delegates at the convention to win the nomination.
The Maine caucuses are tiny – fewer than 5,600 people voted – but they were being closely watched for signs of how Romney campaign was coping after last week’s humbling losses to Mr Santorum.
Still, his win there comes as a boost to his campaign, and it follows his win in a straw poll taken at the end of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Mr Romney won the straw poll with 38 per cent of the votes, while Mr Santorum is second with 31 per cent. Analysts expressed surprise at the result, suggesting that the Romney campaign had stacked the conference with his supporters at poll time.
On the first day of the conference, there were few Romney supporters in attendance, while followers of Mr Santorum and, to a lesser degree, Mr Gingrich attended in large numbers.
Mr Romney, a relative moderate who is viewed with great suspicion by the most conservative wing of the Republican party, provoked ridicule at CPAC when he spoke on Friday, apparently trying too hard to convince the sceptical audience.
“I fought against long odds in a deep-blue state. But I was a severely conservative Republican governor,” Mr Romney said, deviating from his prepared remarks by adding an adverb.
Well-known conservatives scoffed at the statement, saying no reall conservative would describe themselves in this way.
“In my 50 years in conservative politics at the national level, I have never heard anyone other than Governor Romney describe himself as ‘severely’ conservative,” said Richard Viguerie, the chairman of Conservative HQ and a major conservative fundraiser who supports Mr Santorum.
“Romney has shown, once again, that he can mouth the words conservatives use, but he has no gut-level emotional connection with the conservative movement and its ideas and policies,” he said in a statement.
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