MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA (AP)
Mi t t Romney's win and John McCain's disappointing thirdplace finish in Montana's GOP caucus shows "retail politics" is still important in the state. While McCain was piling up victories around the country, he was sliding behind both Romney and Ron Paul, who had strong organizations in Montana. In addition, Republican observers noted Romney was the only candidate to visit during the campaign and sent family members on his behalf in the days before the caucus. "Montana Republicans want the candidates to come ask for their vote, and Romney was the only candidate to do that," said party chairman Eric Iverson. "Campaigns are also about organization. The bottom line is that in Montana, Mitt Romney simply out-organized everybody." As a result, under the rules of the winner-take-all caucus, Romney earned all of Montana's 25 delegates to the national convention. Romney spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said the "showing in Montana shows his broad base of Republican support." McCain was unlikely to lose much sleep over the loss. He won key victories Tuesday in important states and was ahead in the delegate count. But the results showed Montanans believe in retail politics and want to see the candidates, Iverson said. In addition, McCain fumbled his way to a late start in Montana. He first picked Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger as his state chair only to learn that party activists voting in the caucus don't even consider Bohlinger a Republican. The McCain campaign less than two weeks ago replaced Bohlinger with former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and became more active in seeking endorsements and other campaign work. Yet on caucus night, the missteps continued. On a conference call with voters, McCain touted his role in exposing the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. That scandal played a role in Burns's 2006 loss to Jon Tester after Democrats linked the Montana senator to Abramoff even though Burns was never charged. Burns made no mention of Abramoff, calling McCain a "standup guy who, when he gives his word, he means it." James Lopach, a political science profes sor at the University of Montana, said McCain faced a tough crowd in those 1,800 party activists and elected officials eligible to vote in the caucus. Many of them didn' t l ike McCain's vote against making the Bush tax cuts permanent, Lopach said. "Montana Republicans are a tax-cutting party," Lopach said. "I think they hold that (vote) against McCain, and I think that ' s why they favore d Romney." Political scientist Craig Wi lson of Montana Stat e University Billings said the results were skewed heavily by the fact only party insiders were allowed to vote. He pointed to some counties where Paul received five or six times as many votes as McCain, saying that would not have happened if voting had been more open. And polls from last year showed McCain is popular among many Montanans. "It was an elite caucus where only a few could participate," Wilson said. Iverson said that he believes McCain was gaining ground and would have done better given more time. "He had a long ways to go and made up a lot of ground in a short period of time," Iverson said. Ron Paul supporters were banking on a win in Montana. The rules under the new caucus format allowed them to fill a number of vacant volunteer party precinct posts. The libertarian congressman from Texas ended up with one of his strongest showings yet with his second-place finish in Montana. "I think it's exciting," Iverson said. "Ron Paul brought a lot of energy, a lot of new faces to our party. I hope that the Ron Paul people stick around ... and I think they will."