“The caucuses in Maine—population 1.3 million—are usually given scant attention by presidential candidates and the national media alike. But with the Republican nomination unsettled, Romney and Paul both built organization and made campaign appearances and media buys here. Romney spent last night in Portland, the hub of the state’s most populous and affluent region, where he held a rally at a waterfront boat yard. Paul, who spent two days here at the end of January, flew in from Texas this morning to attend caucuses in southern Maine.

“‘All of a sudden our routine, low-key caucus process over several weeks turned into a sprint to the finish,’ says former Republican state senator Phil Harriman, a political commentator on Portland television and radio stations. ‘With Rick Santorum’s success last week, Romney strategically needed to win Maine.'”

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“Mitt Romney met privately with a group of conservative activists and opinion leaders Thursday, on the eve of his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. In a wide-ranging discussion, a number of participants urged Romney to refrain from attacking rival Rick Santorum with the scorched-earth intensity that he directed at Newt Gingrich…

“‘He said Rick has to be held up to the same scrutiny as everyone else,’ says one meeting participant. (This account is based on conversations with three people who were in the room.) Romney specifically mentioned hitting Santorum on his record on earmarks and other federal spending.

“It’s not clear whether Romney’s answer satisfied the group. In general, a number of participants don’t want to see a repeat of the Romney-Gingrich attacks because a) they feel Santorum doesn’t deserve it, and b) they believe the negativity has been bad for Republicans overall. Romney told the group that the attacks on Gingrich were not his doing but rather the work of the super PAC that works on Romney’s behalf but not under his control.”

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“Turning to this year’s election, and clearly alluding to Romney, the former Pennsylvania senator asked: ‘Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate of the party who the party’s not excited about?’…

“The address and his campaign’s line of attack this week makes clear that Romney’s plan is to target Santorum’s decades in Congress and his decision to remain in the capital after his 2006 defeat — in other words, to effectively do to Santorum what the campaign did to Gingrich in Florida.

“In a brief exchange with reporters after his speech Friday, Santorum sought to highlight the limitations of such a strategy.

“Hopefully, people have already figured out that Gov. Romney going out and just slamming and slashing and burning whoever is in front of him is not going to be a particularly effective tactic to beat Barack Obama,” said the former senator, arguing that money won’t be decisive in the fall.

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“As an organism, the Romney campaign always attacks when threatened, and Santorum’s victories in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado were threatening…

“The three-state parlay highlighted not just Santorum’s strengths, but Romney’s structural weaknesses. At the most elemental level, it remains true that Mitt Romney’s greatest challenge is winning votes. He has now lost elections to five different rivals over the course of his career. The last presumptive presidential nominee to have lost to so many opponents was Richard Nixon, and his losses were offset by a large number of electoral victories. Whatever Romney’s personal, moral, and intellectual merits, he has stood before voters more than two dozen times now. And they have nearly always expressed a preference for the other fellow—no matter who the other fellow is…

“More worrisome, though, is what the results—particularly in Minnesota and Colorado—suggest about Romney’s infrastructure. When a campaign can’t keep track of a few thousand core supporters from one election cycle to the next, motivate them, and get them to the polls in a small caucus environment, there are only two explanations: Either the organization is incompetent, or the supporters have had second thoughts.”

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“Mr. Santorum will not be as easy a mark for Mr. Romney as someone like Mr. Gingrich. The results in Florida had seemed to suggest that Mr. Romney could win a state any time he wanted to by blanketing it with advertising dollars. But almost all of those ads were negative, and almost all of them attacked Mr. Gingrich — most of them on his personal failings like his resignation from Congress and his ties to Freddie Mac.

“Mr. Romney’s attacks on Mr. Santorum, by contrast, have focused on more venial sins: that he is a ‘career politician’ who defended earmarks.

“Meanwhile, Mr. Santorum closed strongly and outperformed his polls in several states so far, including Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri and South Carolina (where he was projected to place fourth by the polls but finished in third). That could indicate that voters like Mr. Santorum the more they get to know him — indeed, his favorability ratings are strong among Republican voters — or that his supporters are more enthusiastic. Either quality would be an asset going forward, allowing him to win his share of close calls against Mr. Romney.”

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“Romney, who treated Iowa as a tie, is treating Maine as a great victory. ‘It is time to send a conservative outsider to Washington,’ he said in statement thanking Maine. The phrase — ‘conservative outsider’ — is reminiscent of George W. Bush renaming himself ‘a reformer with results’ in 2000 after campaign finance reformer John McCain beat him by nearly 20 points in the New Hampshire primary.

“In both cases the labels carry some truth; Bush was an education reform crusader and Romney has never worked in Washington. That is not for lack of trying, given Romney’s 1994 Senate race and 2008 presidential bid. Still, Romney’s background is a contrast with Santorum’s 16 years in the House and Senate, and Gingrich’s House career capped by his speakership.

“The re-branding worked for Bush. For all the superficial, narrow and conditional aspects of his latest victories, Romney has a better shot at making his work now than he did before Saturday.”

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“‘We can’t afford to have low voter turnout in the general election, and that is all the more reason for Romney to really start connecting more with conservatives,’ [Palin] said…

“She also welcomed the possibility of a brokered convention in Tampa.

“‘I don’t think that it would be a negative for the party, a brokered convention,’ she said. ‘And people who start screaming that a brokered convention is the worst thing for the GOP, they have an agenda. They have their own personal or political reasons for their own candidate, who they would like to see protected away from a brokered convention. That’s part of the competition, that’s part of the process. And it may happen.'”

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