PORTLAND, Maine (Reuters) - Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney grabbed back some momentum after midweek losses in three states, scoring a narrow win in Maine's caucuses on Saturday, hours after winning a straw poll of Republican conservative activists.
Results of Maine's non-binding straw poll showed the former Massachusetts governor with 39 percent support, or 2,190 votes, ahead of libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul with 36 percent or 1,996 votes.
Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who did not campaign in Maine, won 18 percent and 6 percent of the vote, respectively.
Despite anecdotal signs of higher voter turnout, the votes cast in Maine were only slightly above 2008 levels. A handful of communities have yet to hold their caucuses.
The Maine outcome capped a good day for Romney, who unexpectedly lost to Santorum, a social conservative, in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado on Tuesday to generate new doubts about his appeal to party conservatives.
Republicans are seeking a nominee to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 general election. Some 21 delegates will be allocated from Maine. A candidate needs 1,144 delegates to clinch the Republican nomination.
Romney earlier on Saturday won a closely watched straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, with 38 percent support to Santorum's 31 percent.
More moderate than his rivals, Romney, a former venture capitalist, has struggled to convince conservatives he is one of them. He spoke to CPAC on Friday and called himself "severely conservative."
"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 said in a statement after the Maine results.
Romney also staked a claim as a Washington outsider "who has never served a day in our broken federal government."
"The voters of Maine have sent a clear message that it is past time to send an outsider to the White House, a conservative with a lifetime of experience in the private sector, who can uproot Washington's culture of taxing and spending and borrowing and endless bureaucracy," he said.
In his failed presidential run in 2008, Romney won the Maine caucuses with 2,837 votes, or 52 percent backing.
CAMPAIGNED IN STATE
In a sign of how seriously the Romney campaign took the potential for a fourth consecutive state loss, Romney flew to Portland on Friday for a town hall meeting, and spoke at two of the state's largest caucus sites on Saturday.
He also brought some of his top surrogates, including son Tagg and John Sununu, the former governor of neighboring New Hampshire, to Maine to speak on his behalf, emphasizing his long career in the private sector.
Sensing a possible victory, Paul hosted a party in Portland on Saturday evening. After the results were announced, he told supporters that Romney's margin of victory was so small, "it's almost like we could call it a tie."
Paul also forecast that when Maine's delegates were finally assigned, "we will control the Maine caucus when we go to Tampa" for the Republican convention in August.
The Northeastern state of Maine encompasses everything from oceanfront estates such as one owned by former President George H. W. Bush in Kennebunkport, to remote potato farms near the state's northern border with Canada.
Obama won the state by 18 points in the 2008 election. Maine, which has two moderate Republican U.S. senators, has not voted Republican in a presidential election since 1988.
Maine had been seen as Paul's best chance to win his first state contest, especially after a two-day visit in late January brought out large crowds. The candidate has a strong and committed team of volunteers, and implied that momentum had shifted in his favor in recent days.
"I wish all the caucuses met today," Paul said.
The next contests in the state-by-state Republican nominating process are in Arizona and Michigan on February 28. "Super Tuesday," when 10 states hold primaries or caucuses, comes shortly afterward, on March 6.