Romney's advisers are actively downplaying expectations for Maine, the last state to hold a contest before a 17-day break in the electoral calendar. They privately acknowledge that Paul has devoted far more energy there, and they expect the Texas congressman to win or place a strong second.
But Romney certainly wants to avoid losing his fourth consecutive contest.
While he hasn't invested significant resources in broadcast advertising, he recently dispatched high-profile surrogates — including his eldest son, Tagg — to Maine. Romney also was hosting a "telephone-town hall" with Maine voters Wednesday night.
"I look forward to seeing you. I'll be coming up to Maine from time to time and enjoy the beauty of your coastline and the beauty of your national parks," Romney said on the call.
He offered an aggressive line of attack against Gingrich and Santorum, but went out of his way to compliment Paul, a former obstetrician turned libertarian champion.
"We've got good guys in this race, the Republicans that I'm running with," Romney said. "Congressman Paul has been a doctor, so he's had real world experience. But the other two guys have spent their lives in Washington. And I just don't think you can change Washington if you've spent your whole life in Washington."
Romney's campaign has suggested that lower-profile contests in Maine, like those in Colorado and Minnesota earlier in the week, simply don't matter as much as the bigger states such as Florida, which he won resoundingly last month. But losing three — and potentially four — states in a row has weakened him going into the slow period between now and primaries in Arizona and Michigan Feb. 28.
Speaking to reporters in Atlanta on Wednesday, Romney noted that Sen. John McCain lost almost 20 states on his way to earning the GOP presidential nomination four years ago.
"We expected a long process," he said. "There are big states coming up with a lot of delegates. We'll compete actively there.
Santorum finished a distant third in Florida, but he won all three contests this week, breathing new life into his campaign and exposing Romney's problems attracting the party's most conservative voters.
Other factors contributed to Santorum's strong showing this week, including very low turnout in all three states. Santorum's base of strongly conservative voters made a point of showing up while less committed voters stayed home.
But Romney's shellacking, coming just after back-to-back wins in Florida and Nevada, cast new light on the role negative advertising and super PAC money has played in boosting his candidacy.
Peoples reported from Atlanta.
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