AUGUSTA — In terms of determining the eventual Republican Party presidential nominee and deciding which candidates would receive the Maine's 24 GOP delegates, Saturday's nonbinding caucuses weren't supposed to matter all that much.
However, GOP front-runner Mitt Romney's narrow, if not incomplete, victory over Ron Paul has invited the usual postmortem analysis and controversy of more high-profile states in the presidential nominating process. On Monday national media attention centered on the Maine Republican Party's decision that precincts that postponed caucuses on Saturday because of snow would not count when voting resumes this weekend.
That ruling irked Paul and his supporters, who hinted that the local GOP leaders conspired to deny the Texas congressman his first victory while ending a three-state losing streak for Romney, the so-called establishment pick.
The fallout echoed the recent similarly nonbinding Iowa caucus where Romney was initially declared the winner. Six weeks later the contest was awarded to Rick Santorum. The Iowa result and outcomes in other states has prompted some to call for changes in the caucus system.
Maine GOP Chairman Charlie Webster on Monday attempted to deflect criticism about Maine's process. He said the state party committee made the decision months ago to cut off voting by Feb. 12. Part of the reason, some Republicans said Monday, was to garner some media attention: A vote that trickled out over several days could be anti-climatic.
However, Romney's 194-vote victory touched off rampant speculation that party leaders canceled caucuses in Washington County and froze the voting because they were worried the contest would go to Paul.
"In Washington County — where Ron Paul was incredibly strong — the caucus was delayed until next week just so the votes wouldn't be reported by the national media (Saturday)," wrote John Tate, Paul's campaign manager, in a statement. "Of course, their excuse for the delay was 'snow' . . . "This is MAINE we're talking about. The GIRL SCOUTS had an event (Saturday) in Washington County that wasn't cancelled!"
Tate's statement made its way to several national media reports. It also put two prominent Washington County Republicans and Romney supporters on the spot.
Washington County Republican Chairman Chris Gardner, a Romney supporter, told The Associated Press on Sunday that excluding the votes would be "extremely disheartening."
Maine Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, also a Romney supporter, agreed with Gardner. Raye, who represents Washington County, said Monday that he hopes the party will change its mind.
"In the court of public opinion and in the media, those votes matter," Raye said. "People can add and I believe it's important to count these people's votes."
While Paul's campaign claimed the snowstorm in Washington County amounted to only a "dusting," Raye said caucus leaders made the right decision calling off the caucuses.
"It was not a good night to be out driving," he said.
The furor over the postponements also drew attention to Maine's unique caucus process. The latter was the focus of criticism in 2008, when Republicans and Democrats adopted rules that appeared to empower party leaders over rank-and-file voters.
This year's GOP caucus results are nonbinding. Caucus-goers chose 24 delegates for the state convention, but the delegates are not compelled to support the same candidate they did on Saturday. The process effectively renders the caucus a straw poll of attendees.
Webster did not discuss the caucus rules on Monday. However, a 2010 article in Working Waterfront quoted a former rules committee head, Art Pickard, saying that binding delegates before the national convention ran the risk of wasting some of the state's 24 delegates on candidates that pulled out of the race or had no chance to win.
The nonbinding results prompted some to call the caucus a media event, or a "beauty contest."
However, it was clear the Maine caucus was significant to Paul and Romney.
Paul has yet to win a state primary or caucus contest. Last month he left the Florida primary early to campaign in Maine, making high-profile stops in Bangor and Lewiston.
Romney, meanwhile, had largely ignored Maine until he suffered a three-state loss last week. The GOP front-runner had been focusing on large primary states. However, the former Massachusetts governor is confronting a surge by Rick Santorum, who appears to have captured the evangelical base and is leading Romney in some national polls.
Until last week Romney had sent only surrogates to campaign in Maine. After his three-state loss last Tuesday, he booked several last-minute appearances in southern Maine and made ad buys, apparently attempting to end the national narrative that his campaign was losing momentum.
On Saturday, Romney left the state before the results were announced Saturday evening.
Neither Santorum, who finished third, nor Newt Gingrich, who finished fourth, actively campaigned in Maine.
Webster, the GOP chairman, brushed off any conspiracy talk among party leaders. He noted that he attended Romney and Paul events when they visited here.
"I've stayed neutral in this the entire time," he said.
He added, "It's just the people from outside that want to believe I'm involved in some sinister plot. I'm just glad that all these people came to see our process."
Webster also noted that counting votes from precincts that didn't caucus Saturday probably wouldn't change the result.
Paul would have to win at least 195 votes to eclipse Romney's current margin and somehow best the votes Romney would receive from the postponed caucuses.
In 2008, only 113 people voted in Washington County. Even if the media attention drove a higher turnout on Saturday, a significant majority would have to favor Paul to change the outcome.
As it stands, 5,585 people turned out for the Maine caucuses, which took place over the span of more than two months. In 2008, 5,491 voters participated.