Mitt Romney got a sorely needed boost in the rocky race for the Republican presidential nomination Saturday, winning a non-binding contest in Maine and a straw poll among conservatives after a trio of unnerving losses.
The former Massachusetts governor edged out Texas congressman Ron Paul by fewer than 200 votes in the Maine caucuses, and outpolled former senator Rick Santorum in the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Though largely symbolic, those wins spelled relief for a candidate whose frontrunner status was again put in question Tuesday when Santorum scored upset victories in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota.
"He just doesn't have the enthusiasm that I think we have been able to get in our crowds, you know, really excited about what he believes in. I think that's his biggest problem," Paul told CNN after losing to Romney in Maine.
"But I would say, yes, he is out in front and people are picking away at him. He lost a few but he picked up a little steam today. You have to give him credit for that," he said.
Despite Romney's wins, however, the Republican race to pick a standard bearer to run against Obama in November remained unsettled.
Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential candidate and conservative firebrand, told conservatives meeting in Washington not to settle too quickly on a candidate, but to let them fight on.
"We have all heard from these experts that we have to name our nominee right now. Wrap it up. No debate for you. Cut it off. As if competition weakens our nominee.
"In America, we believe competition strengthens us. Competition elevates our game," she said. "Competition will lead us to victory in 2012. I believe that the competition has to keep going."
A prolonged Republican nominating fight would be more likely to hurt Romney and help come-from-behind contenders like Santorum or House speaker Newt Gingrich.
Still, participants in the CPAC meeting in Washington voted for Romney over Santorum, 38 percent to 31 percent. Gingrich came in third with 15 percent and Texas congressman Ron Paul last at 12 percent.
In the Maine caucuses, Romney won 39 percent of the vote to 36 percent for Paul, who spent much time campaigning in the state even though no delegates were at stake.
Santorum received 18 percent of the vote, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich won just eight percent, party officials said.
With only about 5,000 votes cast in the caucuses, Romney beat Paul by 196 votes.
"This is an unofficial, non-binding poll that just simply shows a snapshot or takes a current pulse of which presidential candidate has the most support at the participating caucuses throughout the state," Webster said.
The state's delegates to the Republican National Convention will be decided later, but with the next contests in the race taking place February 28 in Arizona and Michigan the results will likely reverberate for weeks.
Republican strategist Ford O'Connell told Fox News that Romney could not afford to lose four in a row going into Michigan and Arizona, with Santorum on the rise and the Super Tuesday primaries looming.
Romney had not spent much time in Maine, but made an 11th-hour visit Friday to rally supporters and ward off the possibility of another defeat, which could have done major damage to a candidacy that has had trouble catching fire.
On Friday night in Portland, Maine, Romney faced a rowdy crowd at a town hall meeting, and fielded needling questions about his off-shore bank accounts and his recent controversial comments about the poor.
"I've got to take some shots now and then or it wouldn't be interesting," Romney said when asked about investments in the Cayman Islands, according to Fox News.
"I pay all the taxes I'm required to pay under the law -- by the way, not a dollar more."
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