PORTLAND, Maine (Reuters) - He is the only one of the four contenders for the Republican presidential nomination not to have won a state primary or caucus.
But on Saturday, Ron Paul could get his best shot at a victory in Maine, the cold, far northeastern state that has given a warm reception to his libertarian views.
Local caucusing has been under way in Maine since January 29, and will continue in a few towns until March. Even so, the state Republican Party will announce the winner of its presidential straw poll on Saturday, and the Texas congressman’s strong on-the-ground organization could have a big impact.
Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, generally is viewed as the favorite here, and in the overall Republican race. After losing the last three state contests to Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, Romney is thirsty for a morale-boosting win in Maine, where he won 52 percent of the vote during his unsuccessful run for president in 2008.
Paul typically has been viewed as the Republican contender least likely to win the nomination, but he has a loyal following and this week was running second to Romney in a nationwide Reuters/Ipsos poll of Republican voters.
Paul has yet to translate that appeal into a victory in the state-by-state race for the nomination. His best results have been second-place finishes in Minnesota and New Hampshire, in both instances far behind the winner.
Speaking to supporters on Tuesday after his runner-up finish in Minnesota, Paul said he expected to do well in Maine.
Political analysts agree.
“If Ron Paul is going to win one state, this is the one,” said Mark Brewer, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine in Orono.
“There’s a particularly strong libertarian streak in Maine’s political culture, and Ron Paul can tap into that in a way that the others really can’t,” Brewer said. “He can generate a mass of enthusiasm, particularly among college students.”
Polling data is sparse for the Pine Tree State, so it is difficult to get a precise read on where the candidates stand with voters.
The betting site Intrade is predicting that Romney will win the state, followed by Paul.
Santorum and former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich have largely ignored Maine, preferring to focus on other states in the run-up to the “Super Tuesday” contests on March 6, when voters in 10 states will take part in primaries or caucuses.
But Paul’s supporters have been aggressive in their get-out-the-vote efforts, calling to make sure potential voters know when and where to caucus — no small feat given the state’s stretched-out voting calendar.
Sylvia Most, a Republican who has worked on several political campaigns, including Maine U.S. Senator Susan Collins’ successful re-election bid in 2008, said Paul’s ground troops have been out in force.
“At the caucus in my local community (in Scarborough, near Portland), they had a good organization, and that’s what I’ve been hearing elsewhere,” Most said.
Maine has only 24 delegates at stake, a fraction of the 1,144 needed to clinch the Republican nomination.
But the symbolic importance of Maine to Romney has spiked after Tuesday, when the front-runner lost to Santorum in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.
With that in mind, Romney’s schedulers had their candidate flying to Portland late on Friday for a town hall meeting, hours after a speech to the conservative CPAC meeting in Washington.
“One can speculate that his campaign is hearing some things they don’t really like out of Maine,” Brewer said. “It certainly sounds like Ron Paul is doing well so far.”
If Romney’s visit could be a sign of weakness, Paul’s two-day campaign swing in late January was a show of strength. The congressman attracted large crowds despite frigid weather, and favorable press when he held six events in the state.
Paul met with Maine’s Governor Paul LePage, a Republican affiliated with the Tea Party, a populist conservative movement that aims to limit taxes and government.
Elected in 2010, LePage has outraged many Maine Democrats by, among other things, seeking to undermine labor unions. But LePage, who has not made an endorsement in the presidential race, is popular with the type of die-hard conservatives who typically vote in the Republican caucuses.
Maine is split into two congressional districts. The southern 1st District, which includes lively and eclectic Portland, is “right in Romney’s back yard,” Most said.
But the sparsely populated 2nd District, dominated by woods and lakes stretching hundreds of miles to the Canadian border, is quintessential Ron Paul territory because its residents tend to be wary of government excess.
Although he carried all but two of Maine’s 16 counties in the 2008 primary, “I’d be pretty surprised if Romney’s able to win a lot of towns in the 2nd District,” Brewer said. “2008 was a different contest.”