EAST MACHIAS, Maine — Ron Paul’s strong showing in weekend caucuses in Washington, Hancock and Kennebec counties is challenging the notion that Maine belongs to Mitt Romney.

In the presidential preference poll conducted at Washington County’s GOP caucus on Saturday, Paul attracted 163 votes to Mitt Romney’s 80. In the two straw polls conducted by GOP faithful in Hancock County, who gathered in Hancock and Eastbrook on Saturday, 60 registered Republicans voted for Paul, while 23 opted for Romney. Paul won again in the Kennebec County community of Clinton, picking up four votes to Romney’s two.

While that strong showing clearly energized Paul supporters, the results weren’t enough to overcome Paul’s runner-up status statewide, as an unofficial tabulation by the Bangor Daily News shows Paul now trailing Romney in the nonbinding preference polling by 117 votes.

Rick Santorum attracted 57 votes in Washington County, 17 votes in Hancock and 8 votes in Eastbrook. Gingrich finished last in all three caucuses with 4 votes in Washington County, 9 in Hancock and none in Eastbrook. Neither candidate received any votes in Clinton.

While the weekend’s flurry of GOP activity attracted a tsunami of media attention, the results of statewide, nonbinding presidential preference polls have little to do with how Maine’s 24 delegates will weigh in at the Republican Party’s national convention as to who should be the party’s presidential nominee.

The Washington County caucuses were originally scheduled for the prior Saturday, but were postponed because of an expected storm.

Despite the lack of a caucus in Washington County and other local caucuses that had yet to be held, Maine Republican Party Chairman Charlie Webster last Saturday announced that Romney had won the state’s nonbinding presidential preference poll.

That decree was based on a decision last fall by the Republican State Committee that all GOP local and regional caucuses should be held between Feb. 4 and Feb. 11. Nonetheless, more than a few Republican county committees scheduled their caucuses on later dates. Castine’s caucus is scheduled for March 3.

Still, the announcement of Romney as the winner spurred a firestorm of protest and media scrutiny.

The pressure mounted when a town-by-town review by the BDN of the caucus results showed that Waterville and towns in Waldo County that had already caucused were not included in the GOP’s vote tally. Waldo County Republicans on Tuesday recommended a censure of Webster for his handling of the caucuses.

On Thursday, the party changed course and said the Washington County results would be included in the state total. Party leadership also asked town committee leaders to resubmit their results.

Webster said the GOP’s state executive committee recently agreed that Saturday’s Washington County straw poll results would be counted, as that caucus was originally scheduled for Feb. 11, but had to be postponed a week due to a snowstorm. Whether Hancock County and other post-Feb. 11 GOP caucus straw poll results will be included in a final tally remains to be seen. That issue will be on the agenda of a March 10 meeting of the Republican State Committee.

Hancock County Republican Committee Chairman Eric White assured caucus-goers on Saturday that their presidential preference poll votes would be tallied. “My job is to make sure every vote gets counted,” White said. “We’re going to be included.”

In East Machias Saturday afternoon, it was standing room only in the Washington Academy gymnasium.

Washington County GOP Committee Chairman Chris Gardner opened the caucus with this observation: “As you can see by the numbers,” he said, “this is a county that needs to be counted.”

Maine State Senate President Kevin Raye, a Washington County resident who has endorsed Romney, called the turnout “magnificent,” but said he wasn’t surprised.

“I thought it would turn out like this,” he said, before taking the stage to make his pitch for support as he mounts his campaign for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District seat now held by Democrat Mike Michaud.

Turnout in Washington County far surpassed caucus attendance compared with the last two major elections. On Saturday, 306 votes were cast. In 2008, 113 people voted at the county caucuses and 120 did in 2010, according Raye.

The big loser in the weekend’s straw polls was Newt Gingrich. He finished last in all four caucuses, attracting nine votes in Hancock County, four in Washington County and none in Clinton.

That dismal showing came as something of a wake-up call for Laurel Paladino, who traveled on Saturday from her home in Androscoggin County to pass out Gingrich campaign literature at the Washington County caucus in East Machias.

“I’ve only been a volunteer for the Gingrich campaign since last week,” she said. “I decided to get involved because of high gas prices. I think he has all the solutions in place.”

Paladino found Saturday’s caucus to be a baptism by fire. When the microphone was offered to a Gingrich supporter, initially there were no takers. A minute later, Paladino came bolting onto the stage and spent no more than 90 seconds singing Gingrich’s praises. She was later called upon to represent Gingrich in overseeing the counting of the straw poll votes.

While the process of getting final straw poll results remains a source of controversy within Maine’s Republican Party, a hand-lettered sign on display in East Machias on Saturday predicted a Ron Paul victory: “As Goes Washington County, So Goes Maine.”

BDN editor William P. Davis and The Associated Press contributed to this report.