SANFORD, Maine — For about two hours Saturday, the national Republican presidential race came to York County.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Congressman Ron Paul made last-minute stops at the county GOP caucus in Sanford, each hoping to secure support ahead of the evening announcement about who would be declared the state’s winner.
Romney, on a small losing streak prior to the Maine caucuses, originally had not been expected to campaign here. However, with his march to the nomination stalled and Paul close on his heels in Maine, Romney spent Friday night in Maine and then appealed to voters on Saturday as well.
Paul, the only GOP candidate left who had yet to carry a state, had spent two days in Maine in late January before state Republicans began caucusing. He returned to Maine on Saturday with the hope that its voters might deliver him his elusive first win.
With no other primaries or caucuses on the horizon until later this month, all eyes were on Maine. Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney of Springvale, a Romney supporter, summed it up by saying it was “a great day to be a Republican in York County.”
In the end, Romney edged Paul by a 39-36 percent vote in the nonbinding presidential preference poll announced late Saturday by the Maine Republican Party.
That result ultimately could change when delegates are chosen for the state convention in Maine, but the last-minute campaign by the two candidates showed how much each wanted a win, even a nonbinding win.
The visits to Sanford by Romney and Paul did not overlap, but each made pleas for support, albeit in slightly different ways.
“People keep saying ‘well, when are you going to win a state?’ I hope it’s today,” Paul told reporters as he greeted caucus-goers at the Sanford High School auditorium. “I’m told we have a good chance, but I don’t make predictions.”
Paul shook hands and signed autographs for about 15 minutes before leaving quietly. He made stops later in the day in Lewiston and New Gloucester.
Romney, who arrived in Sanford more than a half hour after Paul departed, did not address potential voters individually and did not take questions from the media. Instead, he addressed the entire caucus audience for about seven minutes and outlined why he believes he’s the only Republican candidate who can beat President Barack Obama in November.
“I’m concerned about the direction this country’s being taken by President Obama and his friends,” he said to several hundred York County Republicans. “I know this president wants to transform America; I want to restore to America the principles that made us the nation that we are.”
Romney quickly ran through his lists of goals if elected. First, he said, was to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which he called “Obamacare.” Second, he pledged “to reverse all the Obama era efforts to attack religion,” a reference to the president’s recent effort to require religiously affiliated employers to include contraception in their health insurance plans. The president reversed his stance on Friday. Finally, Romney said he would bring America’s economy back from the failed efforts led by Obama.
“I want to be your nominee,” he said. “I want to beat President Obama. I believe I’m the one person in this race that actually can.”
Although four candidates are still vying for the GOP nomination, Maine was expected to be a race between Romney and Paul.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have not campaigned in Maine and don’t appear to have a groundswell of support.
Most caucus-goers in York County seemed to have their mind made up by Saturday morning and the Sanford auditorium appeared to be evenly divided between Romney supporters and Paul supporters, with a sprinkle of Santorum and Gingrich backers.
Courtney said he believes Romney is the strongest candidate to beat Obama, but he gave credit to Paul and to Paul’s passionate supporters for helping to rally the Republican party.
Rep. Aaron Libby, a first-time GOP lawmaker from Waterboro, was among the Paul supporters. Libby said he thinks Paul is the only candidate who doesn’t represent the status quo and the only Republican who is serious about cutting government spending.
Libby and Courtney agreed that whoever the Republican nominee is, the party will rally behind him because its ultimate goal is to ensure Obama is denied a second term.