AUGUSTA, Maine — By the time Maine Republicans hold their party’s presidential caucuses beginning on Feb. 4, Mitt Romney may have cemented his hold on the GOP nomination.
With a narrow win in the Iowa caucuses followed by a more commanding win in the New Hampshire primary, the former Massachusetts governor has started to earn the front-runner status he’s had since the race began.
South Carolina and Florida will hold primaries and Nevada will hold caucuses before the GOP race comes to Maine. The contest will not be over come early February, but if Romney continues his impressive run, Maine could help propel him to the nomination.
“It’s too early to say, but if Mitt gets a victory in South Carolina and follows that with a win in Florida, it’s more or less over,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “But my gut says Romney has a hard time in South Carolina and a lot of conservatives see that state as a last stand. If they coalesce around one candidate, Romney could be in trouble.”
That means Maine could play a role either in keeping momentum in Romney’s favor, helping Romney regain momentum if he loses South Carolina, Florida or Nevada, or by shifting harder to the right and supporting someone like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
At a meeting in Texas on Saturday, a group of about 150 leading social conservatives and evangelical Christians threw their weight behind Santorum. Whether that will help him on Jan. 21 in South Carolina remains to be seen, but Brewer said he thinks Santorum is the best bet to emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney.
“There are problems with all of them, which is why voters have bounced among all these candidates,” he said, referring to alternating support for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Minnesota Sen. Michele Bachmann, Gingrich and now Santorum. “That probably works to Romney’s advantage. If there were one [conservative] choice, Romney would be in big trouble.”
Campaign officials said late Sunday night that Jon Huntsman — former Utah governor and former U.S. ambassador to China, who has had a hard time siphoning away moderates from Romney — was expected to drop out of the race Monday and endorse Romney.
And then there’s Ron Paul, the libertarian who has fervent grass-roots support just about everywhere. Brewer said Paul’s ceiling is probably too low, but he expected the longtime Texas congressman to rack up delegates for awhile.
“For the first time for the Republican party, you’ve got this lack of a winner-take-all contest,” Brewer said. “Big victories early on don’t lock up delegates, so other candidates can hang on.”
“The longer it goes on, the worse it is for the party, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. Right now, the only winner is President Obama. I think there is sentiment that if Republicans blow this, it will be one of the biggest missed opportunities in recent memory.”
A number of prominent Maine Republicans have either donated to Romney’s campaign or declared their support for him publicly, including state Attorney General William Schneider, Senate Majority Leader Jon Courtney of Springvale and Sen. Richard Rosen of Bucksport.
Gov. Paul LePage has not endorsed a candidate but said recently that he had been contacted by nearly every major candidate.
Both Charlie Webster, chairman of the Maine GOP, and Michael Quatrano, the party’s executive director, were attending a national convention and could not be reached for comment this weekend.
A thread on the conservative website As Maine Goes about the presidential primary does not appear to indicate that Maine conservatives are squarely behind one candidate.
Romney enjoyed success in Maine the last time his name was on a ballot here.
In 2008, he took 51 percent of the vote, followed by the eventual nominee John McCain at 21 percent and Paul with 18 percent.
Still, only a few days after the 2008 caucuses, Romney dropped out of the race and threw his support behind McCain.
In 2000, former president George W. Bush received 51 percent of delegates, followed closely by McCain with 44 percent.
In 1996, eventual nominee Bob Dole won 46 percent of Maine’s delegates. Patrick Buchanan was second with 24 percent followed by Steve Forbes with 15 percent. Dole went on to lose to incumbent President Bill Clinton.
Although Maine Republicans will begin caucusing on Feb. 4, actual delegates are not selected until the state convention in May. However, there will be a presidential straw poll during the caucuses to gauge support for the candidates. The results of that poll are expected to be announced on Feb. 11.
Depending on what happens in South Carolina, Florida and Nevada, candidates will have to decide how aggressively to campaign in Maine early next month, Brewer said. Some may even make appearances, although nothing has been announced yet.
Maine Democrats will caucus on Feb. 26, but since Obama is the party’s only candidate and presumptive nominee, Democrats will focus on electing delegates to the June state party convention.