By STEVE PEOPLES, ASSOCIATED PRESS
PORTLAND, Maine -- Maine's presidential caucuses come at a critical time for Mitt Romney, the one-time Republican front-runner.
Shaken by a string of failures, Romney is hoping to avoid a fourth consecutive defeat Saturday on the path to his party's nomination.
The former Massachusetts governor has stepped up efforts to court local Republicans in recent days, reflecting growing concern over feisty GOP rival Ron Paul in what has essentially become a two-man race here. Neither Newt Gingrich nor Rick Santorum, who defeated Romney in contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado on Tuesday, are actively competing in Maine.
Romney wants Maine to help assuage heightened scrutiny over his on-going struggle to win his party's skeptical conservative wing. State officials will announce a winner Saturday evening, a day after Romney delivered a high-profile Washington address in which he described himself as "a severely conservative Republican governor."
Paul, a libertarian-minded Texan, is fighting to prove he's capable of winning at all, particularly in a state where his campaign has focused considerable attention. He has scored a handful of top three finishes in other early voting states, but his strategy is based on winning some of the smaller caucus contests where his passionate base of support can have an oversized impact.
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 win 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 unexpectedly changed his schedule Friday night to add personal appearances at two caucuses Saturday – a day he had planned to take off, despite being the last big day of voting in a state where the caucuses span one week. 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."
This Maine caucuses began Feb. 4 and will largely conclude Saturday, when the state GOP will announce the results of the nonbinding presidential straw poll. The contest has drawn virtually none of the hype surrounding recent elections in places like Florida and Nevada, where candidates poured millions of dollars into television and radio advertising.
After he and his allies spent a combined $15.9 million in Florida alone, Romney had placed only a small cable television ad buy to air Friday and Saturday totaling several thousand dollars. But he dispatched surrogates to the state in recent days – including his eldest son, Tagg – and hosted a telephone town hall to supplement Friday's campaign stop.
Paul has been more active, supplementing an aggressive ground operation with visits to shore up support. He has three more public appearances scheduled Saturday. There is reason to believe he won't make things easy for Romney.
Paul did reasonably well here 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 tea party – hardly a Romney ally – has also exerted significant influence in the Pine Tree State, taking over the GOP platform and helping to elect Gov. Paul LePage.
"Paul needs to show he can win somewhere," GOP strategist Phil Musser said. "My sense is a win in Maine for Romney would be nice. But to be honest, Ron Paul is camped out up there and he needs to win one."
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. Romney hopes that narrative will be more positive than it has been over the last week, arguably his worst of the year.