WASHINGTON — Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney got a much-needed boost Saturday, winning a key symbolic vote over former Sen. Rick Santorum among some of the nation's most active Republican voters and besting the field in the Maine caucuses.
Romney's 38-31 percent defeat of Santorum in a straw presidential vote among thousands of activists at the annual convention of the Conservative Political Action Committee bolstered his claim that he can consolidate support among the Republican base.
"I think it will give people a little more feeling that in the upcoming primaries, Romney can appeal to the conservative wing of the Republican Party," said Michael McLaughlin, a retired foreign-service officer from McLean, Va., who attended the three-day conference in Washington.
In a separate nationwide survey of conservatives conducted by conference organizers, Romney also bested Santorum, though by a narrower margin of 27-25 percent.
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The two results, announced shortly before the news that Romney also won the Maine caucuses, were a setback for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and provided fresh evidence that he's losing ground to Santorum as the strongest alternative to Romney in the GOP White House race.
In Maine, Romney took just over 39 percent of the 5,585 votes cast statewide. Ron Paul came in second with 36 percent. Santorum received 17 percent and Gingrich won six percent of the caucus vote.
Gingrich received 15 percent of the straw vote among 3,408 CPAC activists and 20 percent of the vote in the national survey of conservatives conducted by Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio, finishing third behind Romney and Santorum in both tallies.
"Santorum is the candidate who can best articulate and represent conservative values whether they be social or fiscal issues," said Wendell Walker of Lynchburg, Va., Republican Party chairman of the swing state's 6th Congressional District. "He's the candidate with the least baggage among the Republican field."
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas won the CPAC vote in 2010 and 2011, but he finished fourth Saturday with 12 percent in a sign that Republicans are focused on electability this year in their quest to dislodge President Barack Obama.
Santorum, Romney and Gingrich split the GOP presidential contest's first three tests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina last month.
Since then, Romney won the Florida primary while Santorum on Tuesday won caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado, and also finished first in Missouri's nonbinding primary.
Steven Hayward, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute and author of two books on President Ronald Reagan, said Romney still needs help persuading hardcore Republicans that he's the best man to defeat Obama.
"It gives him a little boost when he needs every boost he can get," Hayward said of Romney's win in the CPAC straw vote. "He has troubles with conservatives because they suspect he isn't one of them. He doesn't speak their language because he doesn't know it."
Romney, Santorum and Gingrich addressed the CPAC convention Friday.
Romney's difficulties among some conservatives were evident at the CPAC conference Saturday when scattered boos clashed with cheers during the announcement that he'd won the influential group's straw vote.
The mixed chorus contrasted sharply with the roaring welcome accorded former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee whose rip-roaring anti-Obama speech closed the conference.
Palin said the hard-fought race for the GOP nomination this year will help produce a better candidate for the general election.
"In America, we believe that competition strengthens us," Palin said. "Competition relates to victory in 2012."
Gingrich's supporters at the CPAC conference expressed confidence he'll be the Republican nominee despite his recent setbacks.
"I believe he tells it like it is," said Connie Patterson, a retired florist from Sherman, Ill. "He has the ideas that can take us back to where we belong. He's very honest and forthright. He's pissed off a lot of people in Washington because he tells the truth about them."
Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, a conservative leader who's persuaded many Republican lawmakers to sign a pledge not to raise taxes under any circumstances, fired up activists at the conference by promising victory in November.
"We're going to win!" Norquist said to loud cheers. "The only thing holding us back is a great deal of work. Whining is not work. We're going to remain America, we not going to be France. We're going to remain America, we're not going to become Greece. We're going to win, and we're sure as heck not going to become (Obama's hometown) Chicago."
In the national survey of conservatives released Saturday, 46 percent said they disapproved of Republicans' performance in Congress.
"The fact that a lot of conservatives are critical of what Republicans in Congress are doing should be a warning to them," Fabrizio said.
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