A few thousand voters in Maine have provided a platform for Mitt Romney to steady his quest for the Republican nomination, see off his rivals in the race and counter a story that his campaign was in trouble.

The win sets up Mr Romney nicely for the Super Tuesday contests in early March, where his campaign hopes decisive wins will push some rivals out of the race.

The former Massachusetts governor also scored a symbolic victory in a weekend straw poll taken at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a yearly jamboree bringing together the Republican leadership and grassroots activists.

Mr Romney won the straw poll with 38 per cent of the votes, with Rick Santorum second with 31 per cent, the only sour note being the suggestion that the Romney campaign had stacked the conference with his supporters.

The good news in Maine and at CPAC breaks a string of losses in three Midwestern states last week and restores much-needed momentum into Mr Romney’s bid to challenge Barack Obama for the presidency in November.

His Maine victory consigned Ron Paul to second place in a race that the libertarian Texas congressman had been widely tipped to win.

The former Massachusetts governor, who won Maine during his unsuccessful presidential bid four years ago, had campaigned fervently, concerned that Mr Paul, who has a significant support base in the state, could prevail.

In the end Mr Romney eked out a victory with 39 per cent of the vote, while Mr Paul had 36 per cent in a caucus where only about 5,600 votes were cast.

Mr Santorum, the most socially conservative of the presidential hopefuls and the surprise winner of ballots in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri last week, took 18 per cent, while Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, trailed with about 6 per cent.

Mr Santorum’s success in the Midwest and third place in Maine has put him in Mr Romney’s target sights, replacing Mr Gingrich, who only two weeks ago had loomed as the biggest threat.

The former Pennsylvania senator, called Mr Romney’s attacks on his record in Congress, and eventual loss of his seat, as “desperate”.

“He’s having trouble finding out how to go after someone who is a solid conservative, who’s got a great track record of attracting independents and Democrats and winning states as a conservative,” Mr Santorum told ABC television.

Mr Romney, a relative moderate who is viewed with great suspicion by the most conservative wing of the Republican party, provoked ridicule at CPAC on Friday with his efforts to win over the sceptical audience.

The Republican frontrunner called himself “a severely conservative governor”, deviating from his prepared remarks by adding the adverb “severely” to emphasise his rightwing credentials.

Many attendees at the conference scoffed at the statement, saying no real 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,of the Conservative HQ website, a major 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.

George Soros, who gave Democratic causes $24m in 2004 to try to defeat George W. Bush, said he had not made up his mind whether to contribute funds this year.

Democratic fundraisers have urged Mr Soros to support Mr Obama and the party after pro-Republican super-political action committees were shown to have raised far more than the left in 2011.

Speaking on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, Mr Soros said he had not decided whether to give money.

But he saida 2010 Supreme Court decision which had allowed wealthy business leaders directly to fund political campaigns, often anonymously, had created “an unequal playing field, which will further destroy the political system.”

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