PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — His losing streak broken and the GOP presidential race entering a lull, Mitt Romney now turns his attention to extending the huge cash advantage he enjoys over his rivals.
The former Massachusetts governor narrowly won Maine’s Republican caucuses, state officials announced Saturday night, giving Romney’s campaign a much-needed boost after humbling losses in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri earlier in the week.
There won’t be another election until Arizona and Michigan hold primaries at the end of the month and the next debate is 10 days away.
That’s an unusually long break in a rapid-fire Republican race that featured six contests in the last two weeks alone. Romney and his rivals now have 17 days to raise cash and bolster their organizations for what’s shaping up to be a long slog to the Republican nomination and the right to face President Barack Obama in the elections this November.
Romney was focused on money even before his Maine victory was official.
He left the state to attend a West coast fundraiser Saturday night and issued a written statement to mark his victory in the low-turnout contest.
“I’m heartened to have the support of so many good people in this great state,” Romney said. “The voters of Maine have sent a clear message that it is past time to send an outsider to the White House.”
He’s expected to spend much of next week courting fundraisers, while sprinkling in a handful of campaign events. He’ll be in Arizona Monday evening.
In Maine, Romney won just a plurality of the vote, suggesting he still has much work ahead to unite GOP voters behind his candidacy.
He narrowly defeated Texas Rep. Ron Paul, capturing 39 percent to Paul’s 36 percent of the vote, according to state Republican Chairman Charlie Webster. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who didn’t actively campaign in Maine, won 18 percent and 6 percent respectively.
Santorum defeated Romney in three contests last week and looks to recapture the spotlight Sunday in scheduled appearances on three nationally televised morning programs. His campaign saw a surge in donations — reporting bringing in $3 million over the three days immediately after last week’s hat trick — but is unlikely to catch Romney in the money race.
Santorum reported that he had $279,000 in the bank at the end of December, compared with $19.9 million for Romney. Gingrich had $2.1 million, but is still carrying substantial debt, while Paul reported $1.9 million.
Romney’s relative success in Maine combined with his victory in the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington hours earlier may help enhance his cash advantage, despite some lingering skepticism among some conservatives.
The Maine vote totals reflected about 84 percent of the state’s precincts. The contests scheduled for the coming days — including an entire county that postponed its caucuses because of a snow storm — will not be counted, according Webster, the state GOP chairman.
“We’re not going to even accept the ballots. No one’s going to keep track of them,” he said, noting that those were the rules established by the party.
Romney’s campaign has demonstrated skill and flexibility in winning a big state like Florida and eking out a victory in a low-turnout contest like Maine, where organization and voter contact are essential. Out of Maine’s 258,000 registered Republicans, nearly 5,600 cast ballots in the weeklong voting.
But questions about Romney’s durability as his party’s presumed front-runner persist. Sixty-one percent of Maine voters selected a candidate other than Romney in a state practically in his back yard. And Romney’s showing was down considerably from 2008, when he won 51 percent of the vote.
Speaking to supporters in Portland, Paul expressed disappointment that only a portion of the state’s caucuses had counted toward the total.
“I wish all the caucuses had met today,” Paul said, adding, “It’s almost like we could call it a tie.”
Romney won 11 delegates and Paul won 10, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. Santorum and Gingrich were shut out, further increasing Romney’s chances of being nominated to face Obama.