By Andy Sullivan
(Reuters) - Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney are scouting an unlikely path to the White House through the vast forests and blueberry barrens of northern Maine.
President Barack Obama is expected to win the Pine Tree State easily in the November 6 election.
Regardless, Romney allies are buying TV time with the hope of carrying the state's thinly populated interior and scraping out one electoral college vote in Maine that could edge their man closer to the 270 needed to win the White House.
With polls showing a dead heat nationally, Republicans in the state are focusing their phone calls and door-knocking efforts on the rural north of Maine -- one of two states that play by a different set of rules in presidential elections.
Most states give all of their electoral votes to the winner, but Maine and Nebraska award one electoral vote to the winners of each of their congressional districts, two in Maine and three in Nebraska.
The candidate who takes the statewide vote -- very likely to be Obama in Maine -- receives an additional two electoral votes, meaning there are a total of four up for grabs in Maine.
Although winning just one electoral vote in northern Maine is still a longshot, Maine Republicans are optimistic about Romney's chances. They point to a private poll that found Romney leading Obama by 5 percentage points in the northern part of the state earlier this month, even though he trailed Obama in the state as a whole.
Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, said it was possible, if not likely, that Romney could win half the state.
"There's not a lot going on on the ground that would lead you to believe he could do this," Brewer said. "But who knows? Polling is pretty sparse up here."
Republicans certainly think it's possible. "I think it's very likely that he'll win," said David Sorensen, a spokesman for the state Republican party.
The odds seem stacked against Romney, though. Maine has never split its electoral votes and it hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988. A series of polls in September showed Obama leading Romney by double-digit margins statewide.
A bruising, months-long battle within the state party between Romney supporters and backers of libertarian-leaning candidate Ron Paul has also prompted many Republican activists to stay on the sidelines this fall.
"I think Romney will do well, but if they had welcomed the Ron Paul people instead of alienating them like they did it would probably be a sure thing," said Republican activist Chris Dixon, a Paul supporter.
While aides highlight efforts to expand the race into states once thought safe for Obama, like Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Maine hasn't really been on the Romney campaign's radar so far.
Romney himself owns a home in neighboring New Hampshire, and his campaign is based in Boston, an hour's drive from the Maine border. But he hasn't visited the state since last winter.
The election highlights the gulf between what residents call the "Two Maines" -- the relatively affluent southern coast and the rest of the state, where opportunities have dwindled amid cutbacks in logging, potato farming and fish canning.
Regional disparities like this normally do not matter in the context of presidential politics because most states award their electoral votes on an all-or-nothing basis.
Obama picked up an additional electoral vote this way in 2008 when he won one congressional district in Nebraska.
Nebraska is not expected to split its votes this year, but Romney's allies seem to like the odds in Maine.
Restore Our Future, an outside group supporting the former Massachusetts governor, spent $300,000 on television advertising in the northern half of the state last week, and plans to spend $490,000 across the state in the final week before the election.
The ads running in the Portland television market reach voters in New Hampshire, but those running in Bangor and Presque Isle are aimed squarely at voters in Maine's second congressional district, which encompasses the state's less affluent half.
Maine Republicans say they are focusing their get-out-the-vote efforts on the second district, and they hope the burst of energy can help them unseat Michael Michaud, the Democrat who represents the region in Congress.
Democrats scoff at this, pointing to their own private polling that shows Obama and Michaud leading handily. The Romney campaign would have a more visible presence in the state if they thought they had a chance, they say.
"We don't see any evidence that this Romney 'head fake' has any basis in reality," said Ben Grant, the state Democratic Party chairman.
(Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait)