PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Republican Party declared Mitt Romney the winner of its presidential caucuses on Saturday, but narrow second-place finisher Ron Paul said he wasn’t ready to concede the state until all communities had caucused.
According to unofficial results announced Saturday evening by Maine GOP Chairman Charlie Webster, Romney received 2,190 votes, or 39 percent, in a presidential preference poll held during statewide caucuses in the last few weeks. Paul finished second with 1,996 votes, or 36 percent.
The preference poll was nonbinding and separate from actual caucus delegates but was used by the state to determine a winner.
Supporters of Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and front-runner, said his Maine win ends a string of defeats early last week.
Peter Cianchette, the Maine chairman for the Romney campaign and a former candidate for governor, said his candidate received broad support across the state despite a strong push by Paul.
“This was clearly a win and I think Maine showed him tremendous support,” Cianchette said.
“It’s good news. I’m hopeful this ends Romney’s little slide,” Maine House Speaker Robert Nutting added. “Romney is the best candidate to beat President Obama in the fall.”
The campaign for Paul, a longtime Texas congressman, said the narrow margin in Maine coupled with the fact that a number of state Republicans did not participate in the preference poll suggests the announcement may have been premature.
“Today’s results show once again that Congressman Paul’s campaign for liberty and a return to Constitutional principles is strong and growing,” Paul’s national campaign chairman Jesse Benton said in a statement. “We are confident that we will control the Maine delegation for the convention in August.”
For weeks, Maine had been considered a race between Romney and Paul and both candidates spent time in the state on Saturday to solidify support.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum did not actively campaign here and it showed. Santorum took 989 votes, or 18 percent of Maine’s presidential preference poll, while Gingrich received 349 votes, or 6 percent.
Ruth Summers, vice chair of the Maine GOP, said while it’s true that the presidential preference poll is nonbinding, it does “take the pulse of the Republican party in the state of Maine.”
A similar poll was used in Missouri early last week, a state Santorum carried, although some referred to that state as little more than a beauty contest.
Summers said the results announced Saturday in Maine would not change even though some towns had not participated. A handful of communities are scheduled to hold theirs later this month. Washington County Republicans were supposed to caucus Saturday but canceled on Friday because of pending snow.
Washington County GOP Chairman Chris Gardner told the Associated Press that he was not aware that his county’s preference poll results would not be counted.
“Refusal to reconsider under those circumstances would be extremely disheartening,” he said. “I trust that the party will make the right decision here.
“We will proceed next Saturday. We’ll have our vote and we are going to submit it to the state party for them to reconsider.”
State delegates are chosen during the individual caucuses and 24 of those will become national delegates to represent Maine at the GOP convention in August. Maine’s delegates are nonbinding and not pledged to any candidate but, historically, a nominee is chosen by convention time so those delegates usually go to that nominee.
About 150 prominent state Republicans attended the Maine Republican Party event on Saturday at the Regency in Portland.
Originally, several were scheduled to speak, including Nutting, Attorney General William Schneider and Secretary of State Charlie Summers. However, in order to release the results ahead of the evening news, the schedule was condensed.
Only U.S. Sen. Susan Collins spoke. She was introduced after Webster announced that Maine Republicans “broke caucus attendance records from Fort Kent to Kittery.”
“It doesn’t surprise me that we’ve had record turnout because the stakes are so high,” she said, adding that no matter who the candidate is, “we’ll all unite to elect a Republican president this fall.”
“We must not be the first generation to pass along to the next generation an America that is less free, that is less prosperous, that provides less opportunity,” Collins continued. “We Republicans have the vision, the ideas, the commitment and the candidates to ensure that that is not America’s fate.”
Paul was holding an event in Portland as well. Summers said the candidate was invited to the Maine GOP party but she wasn’t sure why he declined the invitation.
Sam Spencer, representing Maine for the Democratic National Committee, said Romney shouldn’t consider Saturday a decisive victory.
“He won with 50 percent of the vote in 2008 and beat Paul by more than 30 percent that year,” Spencer said. “I think the result in Maine shows that there is still a significant lack of enthusiasm for Romney.”
Spencer said he thinks the longer the GOP race drags on, the better it is for President Obama.
The Republican nomination fight now moves to Arizona and Michigan later this month, followed by Super Tuesday on March 6, during which 10 states will hold primaries or caucuses.
Earlier in the day Saturday, Romney received more good news: He won the straw poll at at the Conservative Political Action Conference with 38 percent of the vote, followed by Santorum with 31 percent. Most rank Romney as the least conservative of the four candidates left in the race.
However, Politico reported earlier Saturday that a recent PPP tracking poll showed Santorum ahead of Romney, thanks in large part to Santorum’s wins in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri earlier this week.