PORTLAND — Mitt Romney won the Maine Republican caucuses Saturday, overcoming a strong challenge by Ron Paul that drew national attention to the normally low-key contest.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, got 39 percent of the votes cast in meetings held around the state during the past week.
Paul, the conservative Texas congressman, came in a close second with 36 percent, his best showing in the primary season.
Rick Santorum got 18 percent and Newt Gingrich got 6 percent.
The caucus vote is a non-binding poll of the state’s Republicans, the first step in choosing delegates for the party’s national convention.
But it was seen as an important win for Romney, who ended a three-state losing streak.
Romney left Maine after campaign appearances Saturday morning, and issued a statement thanking the state’s voters for the support.
“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,” Romney said.
Paul, meanwhile, was in Portland with supporters when the results were announced.
A couple of hundred Paul supporters booed in unison when Romney was announced the winner at the Seasons Event and Conference Center. But the dismay turned to cheers when Paul took to the stage and touted his close second-place finish.
“The revolution is only beginning,” Paul said. “It’s almost like we could call it a tie.”
Maine’s Republican caucuses culminated Saturday under a bright national spotlight.
Romney, the front-runner in the national delegate count, wanted to regain momentum after losing three contests last week. Paul worked hard to win his first state, visiting Maine twice and firing up young, energetic supporters who flocked to the caucuses.
Both Romney and Paul rallied supporters in southern and central Maine on Saturday, the first time in memory two presidential candidates campaigned here on the same day.
Romney also won Maine’s caucuses four years ago, topping Paul and Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominee.
It was a clear two-man race this year.
Paul supporters, energized by his visit here two weeks ago, surprised party regulars by dominating caucuses in some communities.
Romney, meanwhile, arrived in Maine on Friday for the final day of the caucuses and took to the airwaves, buying television and radio ads urging Republicans to participate.
Neither Gingrich nor Santorum, who defeated Romney in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado on Tuesday, actively campaigned in Maine.
The personal campaigning by Romney and Paul and the national stakes of the vote generated unprecedented interest in Maine, as well as nationally.
“Maine Republicans broke caucus attendance records from Fort Kent to Kittery,” Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster said Saturday evening as party leaders gathered at Portland’s Regency Hotel to announce the caucus results.
The energy generated by the caucuses will help the Republicans defeat President Obama in the fall, as well as win seats in Congress and the Maine Legislature, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Saturday.
“There’s so much excitement in the air, you can feel it everywhere,” Collins said.
In Biddeford, nearly 80 voters attended the Saturday morning caucus, nearly twice as many as the previous attendance record – 43.
Corey and Alicia Larochelle went to the Biddeford caucus – their first – to support Paul. The candidate’s libertarian views and straightforward message appeal to young people, they said.
“It’s all about freedom to me. He’s kind of a modern day Thomas Jefferson,” said Corey Larochelle, a 26-year-old carpenter.
Matt Stone, a 24-year-old who has worked on political campaigns, went to Biddeford’s caucus to support Romney.
“He’s a fiscal conservative. He has a record as an outsider,” Stone said. “His campaign is ready to go the distance.”
Both Romney and Paul appeared Saturday morning in Sanford, where hundreds of York County Republicans gathered to caucus.
Romney also stopped in Portland on Saturday morning, where about 250 voters and 100 campaign supporters crowded into the Riverton Elementary School auditorium.
The caucus drew about 100 more voters than four years ago, party officials said.“We have to find someone to replace Barack Obama, not just make a political statement,” Romney told the crowd.
Michael McIver, a 57-year-old network administrator, said he and his wife are longtime independent voters but registered as Republicans in order to attend their first caucus and support Romney.“I am looking for more of a businessman rather than a politician,” McIver said.
Gwen Tuttle, a 26-year-old social worker, also was at her first caucus, But she switched from the Democratic to Republican Party this year in order to support Ron Paul.“I really like Ron Paul’s foreign policy and his economic policy makes a lot of sense for Maine,” she said.
Unlike the primary in neighboring New Hampshire, Maine’s caucuses are often overlooked during presidential election years – both by the candidates and the national media.
Maine’s caucuses are the first step in the selection of the state’s 24 delegates to the Republican National Convention.
Nationally, a candidate ultimately needs 1,144 to capture the GOP nomination.
After the votes were announced, Paul supporters said they would stick with him.
“We’re disappointed. We thought he was going to win it,” said Cindy Brakey of New Gloucester, in Cumberland County, who will be a delegate to the state convention in May.
Jesse Benton, Paul’s national campaign chairman, said the Maine results likely would have been different if Washington County hadn’t canceled its caucuses Saturday because of snow.
Paul has strong support there and probably would have picked up more than 200 votes, Benton said.
Benton questioned whether a little snow was enough to keep Mainers away from the caucuses and pledged to keep pushing to win Paul delegates at the state convention and beyond.
Webster, the state GOP chairman, said caucuses held after Saturday won’t be added to the official count. Webster also said the remaining caucuses most likely would not have changed the outcome.
Staff Writers Kelley Bouchard and Beth Quimby contributed to this report.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: