PORTLAND, Maine: Mitt Romney eked out a narrow win in Maine's Republican caucuses, state party officials announced Saturday, providing his campaign for the party's presidential nomination a much-needed boost after three straight losses earlier this week.
But the former Massachusetts governor's margin of victory over Texas Rep. Ron Paul was so slim it all but guaranteed scrutiny of the party's decision not to count the results of caucuses scheduled later in February.
The Maine victory comes at a critical time in Romney's quest to become the Republican nominee who will take on President Barack Obama in the November election.
Romney is working to gain trust from the conservative activists who make up the Republican base and who drive the party's state-by-state nominating contes. They view him skeptically because of his past shifts on a variety of issues, including his previous support for abortion rights.
Conservatives generally view Romney's chief rivals — former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives — as having views more in line with them.
Romney's victory in Maine came just hours after he won the presidential straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Committee Conference in Washington. He was supported as the Republican presidential nominee by 38 percent of the 3,408 respondents, edging out Santorum with 31 percent. Gingrich was backed by 15 percent, and Paul had 12 percent.
These results helped slow a skid that began earlier this week when Santorum, who has strong support from social conservatives, won contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado. Romney had all but ignored Santorum before these contests.
At the Washington conference of conservative activists, Romney delivered a high-profile address on Friday in which he described himself as "a severely conservative Republican governor."
In Maine, at a state party gathering in Portland, state Republican Chairman Charlie Webster announced Romney had won with 2,190 votes, or 39 percent, compared to 1,996, or 36 percent, for Paul, the only other candidate to aggressively compete in the state. Santorum received 989 votes, or 18 percent and Gingrich won 349, or 6 percent, but neither actively campaigned there.
Webster said any caucus results that come in after Saturday wouldn't be counted no matter how close the vote turned out to be.
"Some caucuses decided not to participate in this poll and will caucus after this announcement," Webster said. "Their results will not be factored in. The absent votes will not be factored into this announcement after the fact."
Maine's caucuses began February 4 and continued throughout the week. But the results announced Saturday accounted for just 83 percent of all precincts in the state. Several communities elected to hold their caucuses at a later date.
Caucuses in Washington County scheduled Saturday were postponed until February 18 because of a major snowstorm that blanketed the region. In a televised interview, Webster said there were less than 200 votes in Washington County and he doubted that including them would have changed the outcome.
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 was attending a fundraiser in California late Saturday, after campaigning in Maine earlier in the day, visiting caucus sites where he pressed voters for their support.
"I thank the voters of Maine for their support," Romney said in a statement late Saturday. "I'm committed to turning around America. And I'm heartened to have the support of so many good people in this great state."
Romney won 50.1 percent of the vote in the Nevada caucuses, but failed to win a majority of Republican votes in his other victories in New Hampshire and Florida. He's looking to emerge strongly from the March 6 battle known as Super Tuesday, when 10 states hold nominating contests.
Romney's conservative opposition remains divided — Gingrich has won one state and Santorum four. But Santorum is suddenly threatening Romney's dominance in states where his team had previously felt comfortable.
Romney went into the Maine contest with the natural advantages of being the former governor of a neighboring state and a strong organization in a state he won in the 2008 presidential campaign with more than 50 percent of the vote. But in recent days he suddenly added more campaign events in Maine, reflecting his campaign's growing concern over a feisty Paul.
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 past week, arguably his worst of the year.
Paul gave Maine considerable attention in recent weeks. The libertarian-minded Texas congressman 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.
Romney's team is preparing an aggressive push against Santorum in Michigan, the state where the former governor was born and where Romney is a household name — and where his advisers had hoped for an easy victory. Romney's father, George, served as governor of Michigan and chairman of American Motor Corp. before mounting a failed bid for president in 1968.
Romney plans to stop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Wednesday and the Detroit area on Thursday, and stay in the Midwest through the end of the week. He's likely to spend some time campaigning in Ohio, which holds its primary on March 6, Super Tuesday.
With his victory in Maine, Romney added to his lead in the race for delegates to the Republican national convention in Tampa, Florida, in late August. Romney won 11 delegates, and Paul won 10, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. Santorum and Gingrich were shut out.
Maine's local caucuses were the first step of a multi-step process to determine the state's delegates to the national convention. Romney would win the most delegates, if the candidates maintain the same level of support throughout the process.
Romney leads the overall race for delegates, with 123. Santorum has 72, Gingrich has 32 and Paul has 19. It takes 1,144 delegates to win the nomination.