Rep. Ron Paul braved Maine's snow and ice Friday in a quest to pick up delegates, vowing he and his loyal band of supporters would be a factor in the Republican nominating contest for weeks to come.
The congressman, who represents the 14th Congressional District of Texas, attracted a packed house in Bangor despite a powerful winter storm that shuttered schools and brought traffic to a virtual standstill.
Feisty and defiant, Paul said he had watched a television segment that morning in which pundits debated how Republicans should try to manage Paul and his fervent backers.
"They want us to go away, but they don't want to offend us. How are they going to manage that?" Paul said to boos. "I'll tell you what -- we'll just hang around for a while longer."
Paul is all but skipping Florida, whose primary is Jan. 31, to focus on Maine and other states holding caucuses, including Nevada, Colorado and Minnesota. Nevada's caucuses are Feb. 4 and Colorado and Minnesota's follow on Feb. 7.
Paul's campaign is following President Barack Obama's 2008 model, hoping a similarly young, Internet-savvy fan base will organize themselves and attend caucuses for Paul. The caucus states also yield a large number of delegates for far less money than many primary states.
The comparison to Obama's 2008 campaign has its limits, however. Obama had racked up at least one major victory -- a huge win in the Iowa caucuses -- before turning to the smaller-state caucus strategy. Paul has yet to win a single contest.
His best showing was in the New Hampshire primary, where he placed second behind Mitt Romney. But he came in third in Iowa behind Romney and Rick Santorum and placed a dismal fourth last Saturday in South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary.
Still, Paul's appeal to young voters and many Tea Party supporters has been unmistakable.
In Florida on Friday, Newt Gingrich said Republicans would have to confer "dignity" to Paul and seek his input on parts of the party platform to ensure that he and his followers remain part of the GOP coalition.
"The key with Congressman Paul is to make sure he does not run as a third-party candidate," Gingrich said at a campaign event in Delray Beach, suggesting that Republicans would have a hard time defeating Obama if Paul did so. Paul has all but ruled out a third-party bid.
Paul was spending two days in Maine, campaigning on or near college campuses, which have typically been receptive to his libertarian-leaning message.
At Colby College in Waterville, he emphasized his support for bringing U.S. troops home from overseas engagements and railed against what he called government's efforts to regulate lifestyle choices.
"When it comes to putting anything into your body, or your mouth, in your lungs, you can't do it without permission of the government," Paul said.
Maine's caucuses begin Feb. 4 and wrapping up on Feb. 11, when the GOP will announce the results of what is essentially a nonbinding straw poll.
The gatherings in schools, Grange halls, fire stations and town halls are the first step to selecting 24 delegates from the state to the Republican National Convention in Tampa next summer.
Charles Welles, 34, a Waterville resident and Navy veteran, said he supports Paul's views on ending military engagements and wants to vote for him. But Welles said he was still a bit confused by the caucus process.
"I'm from Ohio, so this is all new to me," Welles said.
Paul and Romney were both on the ballot in Maine's 2008 caucuses and have maintained active organizations in the state. The former Massachusetts governor finished first that year. Paul came in third, behind Arizona Sen. John McCain, who went on to win the GOP nomination.
Maine, often an afterthought compared to its next-door neighbor, New Hampshire, tends to reward candidates who are organized and make an effort to show up to court voters, Colby political science professor Sandy Maisel said.
Maisel noted that Gov. Jerry Brown of California, who was out of office at the time, won Maine's Democratic caucuses in 1992 after making frequent trips to the state.
The enthusiasm among Paul's supporters could help him prevail in Maine, Maisel added.
"The GOP has a very low turnout and it tends to be the most ideological people, which favors Ron Paul," he said.
Paul state chairman Paul Madore was guarded about setting expectations, saying GOP officials in the state would press for a more traditional candidate like Romney.
We have a rank-and-file Republican leadership in Maine, and they don't budge easily," Madore said. "We have to get in there and make our presence heard."
Sharp reported from Portland, Maine.