NEW YORK — Mitt Romney is in danger of losing his fourth straight state in Saturday's caucuses in Maine, where he and his allies have been all but absent from TV.
That's no coincidence.
Over the past month, he has won in states where he and an allied super PAC, called Restore Our Future, have pounded his rivals with millions of dollars in negative ads. But he has tended to lose big when he has stopped using his power to crush other contenders by spending a ton of money — particularly on TV.
After defeats Tuesday in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Romney's campaign is bracing for the possibility of more bad news in Maine, where Republicans will announce the results of a weeklong series of caucuses Saturday and where Romney's TV presence has been virtually non-existent. Ron Paul has made a strong play for Maine, making it essentially a two-man contest since Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum aren't actively competing there.
A victory for Paul would make him the fourth candidate to take a Republican contest so far. And the prospect of four consecutive weak performances for Romney raises questions about his durability as the GOP leader absent a barrage of attack ads lobbed at his foes.
"Romney has been the presumed front-runner, which means he's walking around with a big target on his back. So unless he or a super PAC is on the air critiquing the other candidates, voters aren't going to hear a lot of negative messages about them," said Seth Masket, an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.
The campaign and Restore Our Future spent just under $190,000 on ads altogether to influence Tuesday's caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota. The two groups bought no ads in Missouri, which held a nonbinding primary the same day.
In states where Romney has won:
— He spent $1.2 million in New Hampshire, next door to Massachusetts where he served as governor, compared with $1.7 million for Paul, who placed second. Restore Our Future did not purchase TV ads in New Hampshire.
— In Florida, Romney and his super PAC spent a combined $15.9 million. Gingrich and an allied super PAC, Winning Our Future, spent just over $4 million.
— In Nevada, Romney and his super PAC spent $566,000 on ads. Paul spent $350,000. Gingrich did not purchase any ads in the state, and Santorum placed a minimal cable buy.
— Romney and his allies also spent heavily in South Carolina — $3.3 million total, compared to about $2 million for Gingrich and his allies. The former Massachusetts governor lost the state to Gingrich, an indication that money won't always lead to a victory.
— In Iowa, Restore Our Future unleashed $2.7 million in negative advertising against Gingrich as polling showed the former House speaker climbing into a lead there weeks before the kickoff caucuses Jan. 3. Gingrich's rise was quickly halted, enabling Santorum to eke out a narrow win over Romney.
Restore Our Future, which is staffed by former Romney aides and has raised nearly $31 million so far, has for months acted as his shadow campaign even though it cannot directly coordinate with Romney's official operation. It's one of many super PACs unleashed by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling easing campaign spending restrictions and has been the most active and influential in the presidential contest so far.
So why did Romney and his allies relinquish using their most powerful campaign tool — an enormous money advantage that allows them to pummel opponents on the air — over the past week?
The campaign suggests it's saving resources for higher-profile contests. But Romney's campaign also concedes it didn't expect him to do so poorly this week.
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