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Romney Edges Paul to Win Maine's Caucuses

The Republican wins the contest near his home state of Massachusetts, although it's unclear how many delegates he'll get.

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UPDATED 6:54p.m.: It's Mitt Romney's lucky day.

Although he suffered a rough string of caucus and primary defeats and one poll now shows Rick Santorum leading him nationally, the former Massachusetts governor pulled off a win in Maine, garnering 39 percent of the vote to Ron Paul's 36. The announcement of the results from the state's two-and-a-half month caucuses come on the same day that he surged to an upset victory in the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. The bad news for Romney is that the Maine result is no more binding than the CPAC one -- rather than awarding delegates, the caucuses in the Pine Tree State selected delegates to a convention to select delegates for the national convention. (For more about the mechanics of the poll, read on below.)

It's disappointing news for Ron Paul, who was the only other candidate to campaign in the state. His supporters had hoped that Maine, which has an independent and libertarian streak to its politics, might be his best shot at a primary or caucus victory for some time, and Paul visited the state to stump. Santorum received 18 percent of the Maine vote, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took six.

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10: 40 a.m.: It doesn't get much attention, but Maine has one of the most unusual political cultures in the nation. It has two of the most liberal Republican senators, in Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. For eight years, from 1995 to 2003, it had a governor who was from neither major party (independent Angus King, for those of you keeping score at home). In 2010, it nearly elected another when independent Eliot Cutler fell just 9,000 votes short of Paul LePage (LePage won the governorship with just 38 percent of the vote). And on Saturday, the state wraps up its two-and-a-half-month Republican presidential caucus.

Yes, you read that right: state law in Maine mandates an election season longer than a D.C. winter. Parties can try to push local authorities to hold their caucuses at certain times, but they can't require it. The Maine Democratic Party arranged to have all of its caucuses on a single day, February 26 (it helps that their pick was a foregone conclusion), but the Republicans couldn't pull that off. They tried to wrangle everyone into having their caucuses between February 4 and 11, but even that was too much authority for many of the state's GOP voters: a quarter of municipalities scheduled their caucuses outside that week-long window.

But that's not the end of the weirdness. The Maine caucuses, like the Minnesota caucuses earlier this week, are nonbinding. Attendees won't actually select delegates until the state nominating convention; those delegates will in turn choose the state's 24 delegates to the Republican National Convention in August, who will give their votes to one candidate or another. So when the Maine GOP hosts an event Saturday evening to announce caucus results, what will be revealed is the results of a straw poll of attendees. That's generally considered a good rough estimate of how the delegates will be apportioned, since the same folks who choose the delegates vote in the straw poll. But since they aren't bound to support anyone, it's impossible to know for sure.

Although Maine has more delegates than its neighbor New Hampshire, the number of caucusgoers is typically minuscule -- in 2008, fewer than 6,000 Republicans turned out. Still, the contest could be consequential for Mitt Romney and Ron Paul (Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum haven't even bothered to campaign there). Romney made a quick jaunt to the state Friday evening after his appearance at CPAC. Despite the small number of delegates and scant attention given to Maine, a loss there would be his fourth straight stumble, and further emphasize doubts about his presumed front-runner status. In 2008, the former Massachusetts governor won 52 percent of the vote in the caucus.

Paul, meanwhile, is in the hunt for his first win of the primary campaign. He insists that his strategy is to slowly and steadily accrue delegates, but his supporters -- including his son Rand -- have said that he needs a victory somewhere, and have pegged their hopes on Maine. The Texan is the only candidate to have spent significant time there, and the conventional wisdom is that the state's independent bent gives him an opening.

Image: Brian Snyder / Reuters

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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