Mitt Romney, the perpetually questioned front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, had a rough week. Three embarrassing losses to Rick Santorum in Tuesday’s non-binding contests led to questions about Romney’s conservative bona fides just in time for GOP activists, gathering at their annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, to collectively grumble about it. But in two narrow, largely symbolic victories on Saturday, Romney reclaimed the headlines. Never mind the details. He was winning again.
Romney won the non-binding Maine caucuses on Saturday night with 39% of the vote, edging out small government standard-bearer Ron Paul by 3 percentage points and fewer than 200 votes. Despite his close second-place finish, the outcome was disappointing for Paul, who campaigned heavily in the state and is the only remaining GOP candidate yet to win a nominating contest. “We’re not going away,” he told supporters gathered in Portland for what clearly had been planned as a victory party.
Earlier in the day, Romney dethroned Paul in the CPAC’s straw poll, winning 38% of activists’ support to Santorum’s 31%. Paul, who won last year’s poll but did not attend CPAC this year, finished at 12% behind Newt Gingrich’s 15%. Romney also led in a national poll of conservatives conducted by CPAC and released on Saturday, beating Santorum by a narrower 27% to 25%.
Neither victory moved Romney any closer to the nomination. Maine’s contest was merely a preference poll and did not allocate any delegates, which will be selected at a state convention in May. CPAC’s straw poll did not provide any accurate measure of national sentiment, and the national survey results actually showed a tightening race with Santorum. But both wins illustrated that Republicans are still able to get excited about Romney, albeit in crowds of just a few hundred in these cases, and put aside the narrative that he is struggling to close the deal. For now.