RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, the latest in the Republican presidential race. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won the Maine caucuses by a slim margin yesterday. The victory gives him another chance to pitch himself as the presumptive Republican nominee, after a recent surge by former Senator Rick Santorum. But there were no delegates handed out from the Maine caucus. And Romney got fewer votes there than he did four years ago. This time, he barely edged out rival Ron Paul.
From Maine Public Radio, Susan Sharon reports.
SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: Both candidates spent the morning wooing voters at caucuses in southern Maine.
MITT ROMNEY: Good to see you. Hi, there. How are you, sir?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How are ya.
ROMNEY: Good to see you. Hi there, how are you?
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
SHARON: For Romney, this visit to a Portland elementary school followed a town hall-style meeting Friday night - his first in several weeks. In both places, he hammered home his commitment to conservative values.
ROMNEY: I have battled for religious liberty. And if I'm president of the United States, I will preserve the religious rights and liberties of Americans and protect our constitutional rights.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
SHARON: As the former governor of Massachusetts, Romney is well-known in Maine. He handily won the state's caucuses in 2008, but until his defeats earlier this week, he was absent from the state. Paul, meanwhile, has visited Maine several times and built a well-organized grassroots campaign.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Ladies and gentlemen of Androscoggin County, welcome to Congressman Ron Paul.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL: Well, I feel very good. I have a lot of friends up here, a lot of excitement and they sort of like my message.
SHARON: Paul says his message of freedom and less government seems to resonate well in Maine, better than in other parts of the country. Lewiston resident Nancy O'Brien showed up at her caucus to register support for Paul.
NANCY O'BRIEN: And he's the first honest politician going.
SHARON: O'Brien says she considered voting for Romney but was put off by comments he made about the poor.
O'BRIEN: For Mitt Romney to stand up there saying he's not that concerned about the poor people or the little people, I'm sorry, there's thousands of us out there. We live from paycheck to paycheck.
SHARON: Still, others view Romney's business and government experience as the best qualifications for the job. Rich Petersen of South Portland walked into Romney's town hall meeting Friday night undecided and says he walked out a convert.
RICH PETERSEN: I have to tell you, I was very impressed with the governor. I thought he did a fantastic job of answering some very direct questions.
SHARON: Romney beat Paul by a margin of 39 to 36 percent. Rick Santorum finished third, despite never making a visit here. Paul's campaign complained that one caucus, in rural Washington County, was called off because of a snowstorm. Paul Madore, chairman of the Ron Paul campaign in Maine, says it was a deliberate effort by Romney supporters in Maine's GOP leadership to give the governor a boost.
PAUL MADORE: I think you'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to see it, really.
SHARON: Madore says Washington County offered potentially strong support for Ron Paul. But Maine's GOP chairman says there's no way everyone who would have turned out at the caucus would have voted for Paul. And he calls the campaign's allegations unfortunate.
In May, Maine Republicans will choose 24 delegates to represent them at the national convention. The Paul campaign has now set its sights on winning those.
For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Lewiston, Maine.
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