WASHINGTON — The spotlight will be brighter and the stakes will be higher for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney when the winner of the Maine caucuses is announced Saturday.

In the wake of a three-state loss Tuesday to Rick Santorum, Romney will visit Maine on Friday for the first time in the 2012 campaign. Republican Ron Paul will make a second swing through Maine on Saturday.

Romney still leads the race but he faces a strong challenge from Paul in Maine, analysts say, and his losses in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Tuesday will raise the profile of Maine’s nonbinding presidential preference poll.

“Now that Romney has stumbled, I think it gives Maine extra attention,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. “After (Tuesday) night, Romney needs a win, no matter where it is.”

The Romney campaign is planning a rally in Portland around 6 p.m. Friday, with Portland Yacht Services on Fore Street a possible site.

Paul will appear in Maine on Saturday, but his campaign said it was still working out details on Wednesday.

Paul hasn’t won a 2012 GOP nominating contest, but he drew large crowds when he campaigned in Maine for two days last month.

Romney easily won the Maine caucuses in 2008, over eventual GOP nominee John McCain and third-place finisher Paul. Romney is a former Massachusetts governor who should do well again in Maine, analysts say.

“Even if there aren’t many delegates at stake (in Maine), Romney has to fear another bad headline,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “The Northeast is his neighborhood, and a loss in Maine would be bad news on top of terrible news for him.”

Maine’s caucus event is the first step in selecting the state’s 24 delegates to the Republican National Convention. Three of those delegate seats go automatically to the Maine GOP chairman and two other party officials. Overall, 1,144 delegates are needed for the GOP presidential nomination.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Romney has 112 delegates overall, Santorum has 72 delegates, Gingrich has 32 and Paul has nine.

The Maine Republican Party is keeping secret the results from a week of caucuses around the state. The winner will be announced Saturday night at the Portland Regency Hotel.

Maine GOP Chairman Charlie Webster said the three wins Tuesday by Santorum won’t change the complexion of the race in Maine. Santorum and GOP candidate Newt Gingrich haven’t been to Maine or set up campaign organizations in the state, leaving it to Romney and Paul, Webster said.

“People realize the choice is Romney or Paul in Maine,” Webster said.

He said Wednesday that Romney’s visit to Maine was in the planning stages before his losses Tuesday night.

Romney had been relying on surrogates to make his case in Maine, including a visit by his son, Tagg Romney, and he offered up a long list of Maine Republicans who endorsed him, including state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and state Senate President Kevin Raye of Perry, who is running against Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.

After the Maine caucuses, contests will be held in Michigan and Arizona on Feb. 28 and Washington state on March 3, before the Super Tuesday contests on March 6 in 11 states, including Ohio, Georgia and Virginia.

Romney became the Republican front-runner with big wins in Florida and Nevada.

But Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said Romney will “limp into Maine” after losing five of the first eight GOP nominating caucuses.

“He’ll be counting on Mainers to help his campaign recover from a loss in each of this week’s nominating contests — where the lack of enthusiasm Republicans have for their choice of candidates was on full display,” Grant said in a prepared statement Wednesday.

Sandy Maisel, a political science professor at Colby College, said Romney’s strategy has been to overwhelm his rivals in larger primary states like Florida, and it may be tough for him to beat Paul in Maine.

“Paul is quite well organized, and many towns have already caucused,” Maisel said. “I think Romney loses more if he looks like he is drawing a line in Maine and fails than he does if he just lets it slide. In the final analysis, (Romney’s) strategy will depend on the large primary states in which his financial advantage can be decisive and the view, still held by most Republicans, that only he of this current crew has a chance to win in November.”

Paul’s best result Tuesday was a distant second to Santorum in Minnesota, and that might cause Maine Republicans at the remaining caucus events to reassess Paul’s viability, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.

Jonathan Riskind — 791-6280

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