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.
Maine, like the three other states that held contests this week, has seen almost no TV ads from the Romney campaign or Restore Our Future. The campaign has placed a small cable buy for Friday and Saturday in the state's largest city, Portland, according to the Smart Media Group which tracks campaign advertising.
Romney is making a campaign stop in Maine Friday evening in hopes of warding off another blow in a state practically in his backyard. He won the New Hampshire primary resoundingly last month but has faced problems in caucus states that tend to attract strongly conservative base voters.
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.