WASHINGTON — Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster said Friday that he doesn’t know whether Mitt Romney will be declared the winner of the Maine caucuses’ GOP presidential straw poll or suffer a setback to Ron Paul.

But Webster said he’s pretty sure of two things: the race is close and the winner of the previously low-profile Maine caucuses will get a needed boost.

“What will happen is that either Paul or Romney will win by 200 votes, in my opinion, one way or the other,” Webster said Friday, although he did not know the tally from the caucuses that have been held statewide.

Webster and independent analysts say Maine won’t make or break Romney, who lost the front-runner status he gained with wins in Florida and Nevada by losing Tuesday to Rick Santorum in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.

But a win by Romney would help change a narrative that his campaign is struggling. Romney visited the state Friday night in a last-ditch effort to win some votes.

The Maine Republican Party is holding what it is calling a preferance poll announcement tonight in Portland. Many of the state’s 16 counties have already caucused and those results will be announced at the event. Counties in the heavily populated southern portion of the state, including York, Cumberland and Androscoggin, are caucusing today. A handful of communities plan caucuses for next Saturday.

A win by Paul would show that the U.S. House member from Texas can actually come in first in a 2012 GOP contest, something he hasn’t done. Paul spent two days in Maine last month, drawing large crowds, and is spending today in Maine, visiting caucus sites in Sanford, Lewiston and New Gloucester and holding a party in Portland.

“I think it will be important see what (Maine Republicans) think,” Webster said. “I do think it is important to Romney and Paul that they do well here.”

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 in Maine, analysts say.

Maine’s nonbinding caucus event today is the first step to select the state’s 24 delegates to the Republican National Convention, though three slots go automatically to the Maine GOP chairman and two other party officials. Overall, 1,144 delegates are needed nationally to capture the GOP presidential nomination.

Santorum and Newt Gingrich haven’t campaigned in Maine and aren’t thought to be factors in the state’s contest.

Christian Potholm, a government professor at Bowdoin College, said the Romney campaign may feel pressure to win in Maine. But a muddled GOP primary season won’t become clearer until the 11-state round of Super Tuesday contests on March 6 and even beyond, he said.

“Winning in Maine won’t do anything to change that dynamic,” Potholm said.

Maine Democrats are reveling in a GOP nominating season that appears likely to stretch a long way, and suggesting that a Romney loss in Maine would be downright embarrassing because he won the state caucuses four years ago with more than 50 percent of the vote.

“(Romney) needs to at least equal that,” said Janet Mills, vice chair of the Maine Democratic Party. “He is coming here with his tail between his legs.

“Morale-wise and from a momentum perspective, he absolutely needs to win Maine and he needs to win big.”

The Romney campaign says it wants to win in Maine, but discounts the suggestion that any one state is vital.

“Governor Romney is running a national campaign and competing in nominating contests across the country,” Ryan Williams, a Romney campaign spokesman, said Friday. “We hope to do as well as possible on Saturday and look forward to securing the support needed to win the nomination and defeat President Obama in November.”

Jonathan Riskind — 791-6280

[email protected]

Twitter: Twitter.com/MaineTodayDC


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