AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are the undisputed favorites in Maine, the next state weighing in on the Republican presidential race. They're the only candidates who have made much of an effort here.
The state's Republican Party is set to announce the victor Saturday night of the GOP contest. Local Republican Party committees have spent the last week holding caucuses in schools, town halls and fire stations up and down the state.
The results — the first step toward electing the state's 24 delegates to the Republican National Convention — aren't likely to dramatically change the dynamics of the overall GOP race. But the outcome could give bragging rights to the victor as well as an uptick in delegates.
"There are pockets of support for everybody," says state GOP Chairman Charles Webster. Still, he adds: "It's fair to say the race will come down to Romney and Paul."
Romney, the GOP front-runner, is looking to rebound after a trio of losses to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum on Tuesday, and is making a last-minute trip to Maine at the end of the week in hopes of avoiding a fourth consecutive loss — and one all but in the former Massachusetts governor's backyard.
Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman, is searching for his first victory, visiting the state Friday for a second time in recent weeks. Newt Gingrich is working to reset his campaign after a string of defeats in the weeks since his South Carolina victory, while Santorum wants to capitalize on his burst of momentum.
Both Romney and Paul competed in Maine four years ago and still have some semblance of organizations from those campaigns in the state. Romney came in first place that year, while Paul finished third, behind John McCain. Paul was the only candidate to make a pre-caucus visit to Maine. Romney's wife, Ann Romney, held a fundraiser in the state in the fall. Romney's son Tagg also has visited the state, telling Republicans that his father has the business experience and self-discipline to find solutions to tough problems in Washington.
Gingrich and Santorum have had little to no presence and have virtually no campaign organizations in the state.
It's a different political environment than it was back when the presidential spotlight last shown on the state.
In the 2008 general election, Maine voters went heavily for Barack Obama. The state's governor, House and Senate remained in Democratic hands, as had been the case since 2003.
But the tea party emerged in 2010 and made its voice loud and clear by taking over the GOP platform at the state convention, helping propel now-Gov. Paul LePage past six challengers in the GOP primary, and igniting a fire that helped the Republican Party take over both chambers of the Maine Legislature.
For the first time, Sen. Olympia Snowe is facing a primary challenge. Snowe, who's long been known for moderate politics that at times stray from the party line, faces challenges from tea party activist Andrew Ian Dodge and conservative Scott D'Amboise.
Paul's backers have been particularly vocal during the caucuses this year. In Augusta, boisterous Paul supporters greeted party members outside Farrington Elementary School with a Paul-inspired song played to the tune of "New York, New York."
Paul's troops are optimistic and hopeful of a strong finish.
"As in Iowa and New Hampshire, Paul has an active ground game in Maine," said Colby College student Adam Thompson, a Paul supporter. He added: "It will not be won easily."
Romney's campaign boasts a list of prominent state officials backing him, including Attorney General William Schneider, four state senators and seven House members.
"Gov. Romney has had a strategy and organization in the state since early on," said Josh Tardy, a former GOP Maine House leader and Romney supporter. "Romney is hopeful for a good showing in Maine."