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Why isn’t Huckabee throwing in the towel?

Times Staff Writer

A day after John McCain appeared to have nailed down the Republican presidential nomination, Mike Huckabee clung Friday to the faint hope that he could snatch it away.

He gamely pleaded for support at “Huckabee for President” rallies in Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City, Kan.

But for many who have watched Huckabee rise to the top tier of candidates only to see McCain emerge as the presumptive nominee, the question has become: Why keep going?

“I still believe that we can win,” Huckabee told listeners at one of his Friday gatherings.

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Few share that view. Many say that Huckabee’s only rationale for staying in the race is to gain leverage for the vice presidential spot.

McCain has more than six months -- a political eternity -- to choose a running mate for the Republican National Convention to formally nominate, along with himself, in early September. The campaign climate that will dictate the Arizona senator’s choice could change radically by summer; at the least, it will be influenced by the outcome of the Democratic presidential race between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, which shows no sign of ending soon.

If, as many suspect, Huckabee is continuing his presidential bid largely to build momentum as a vice presidential prospect, he also must deal with a counter campaign.

Just hours after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s exit from the GOP race on Thursday effectively handed the nomination to McCain, Huckabee’s critics intensified efforts to deny him a spot on the ticket. The opposition stems largely from his record as governor of Arkansas from mid-1996 through 2006.

“Clearly, an economic liberal like Mike Huckabee will be unacceptable to a majority of Republicans,” Pat Toomey, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group, said in a statement. On Friday, Toomey released his roster of preferred vice presidential picks, which was led by South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said Huckabee’s record on taxes and immigration would only worsen McCain’s friction with conservatives if he were on the ticket.

One Republican leader openly offered himself as a vice presidential candidate: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told ABC News -- in response to a question -- that he would accept the honor, but doubted McCain would offer it to him.

Huckabee and his advisors reiterated Friday that he was not running for vice president. “We’re running for president,” campaign chairman Ed Rollins said.

GOP contests today in Kansas, Louisiana and Washington will test Huckabee’s strength against McCain, as will Tuesday primaries in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Strong showings by him in some of these contests -- following his successes in the South this week on Super Tuesday -- would bolster his political credentials.

Still, virtually no one sees Huckabee positioned to stem McCain’s march toward a majority of convention delegates. Some party operatives say Huckabee could jeopardize the clout he has gained if he stays in the race much beyond the upcoming contests.

“He and McCain appear to have a very cordial, respectful and almost affectionate relationship at the moment,” said GOP strategist Whit Ayres, who is nonaligned in the race. “It would be wise not to undermine that if you’re in Huckabee’s shoes.”

President Bush weighed in on the GOP contest Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, but without naming McCain or Huckabee. “We’ve had good debates, and soon we’ll have a nominee who will carry a conservative banner into this election and beyond,” he said.

Taking little for granted, McCain continued campaigning Friday, with stops in Virginia, Kansas and Washington. And he continued to resist putting any overt pressure on Huckabee to drop out. “I don’t want to in any way sidestep the candidacy of Gov. Huckabee,” McCain said in Norfolk, Va., according to the Associated Press. “He’s in this race, and for me to dismiss him would be inappropriate and unrealistic.”

Huckabee expressed hope that an endorsement Thursday from social conservative James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, would build new support for his campaign. “He’s still got a lot of credibility with people across the country and is looked to as the remaining maybe mega-giant in evangelical circles,” Huckabee said.

Researchers at MSNBC television calculated that Huckabee must win 93% of the delegates at stake in GOP contests over the next four months to clinch his party’s nomination.

Faced with that statistic, Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman told the network Friday: “We know we’ve got to have a good rally here in the fourth quarter to win.”

On Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” the night before, Huckabee joked that his best shot would be in the Texas primary on March 4. Asked why, he wisecracked: “Because I understand barbecue.”

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

McCain’s Veepstakes

John McCain is all but sure to win the Republican presidential nomination, and Washington already is speculating about whom he will pick to be his running mate. Early possibilities include:

Haley Barbour, Mississippi governor: He’s an affable Southerner adept at raising money, but carries limited appeal outside his region.

Charlie Crist, Florida governor: While popular in a crucial swing state, he is a rookie on the national scene.

Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas: He is charismatic, with strong evangelical support, but loathed by economic conservatives.

Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota governor: He is telegenic and popular with conservatives, but his appeal beyond the Midwest is questionable.

Rob Portman, former Ohio congressman: A swing-state fiscal conservative, he too is not widely known.

Condoleezza Rice, secretary of State: She’s a foreign policy expert with demographic appeal, but closely associated with an unpopular president.

Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor: He has a successful corporate resume, but had difficulty connecting with voters and a history of shifting positions.

Mark Sanford, South Carolina governor: While loved by conservatives, he is untested in national politics.

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Source: Times reporting


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