By Perry Bacon Jr. and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
VIRGINIA BEACH, Feb. 11 -- At a private meeting of conservatives in the House of Representatives last month, Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.) ridiculed Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), asking why his fellow right-wing activists "shouldn't be physically ill at the prospects of a President McCain."
On Monday, McHenry -- apparently feeling fine -- joined the chorus of voices calling for conservatives to unify around McCain as the likely Republican nominee, and he accused former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee of waging a pointless nomination battle because he is "in there for himself."
The Republican establishment has already begun to embrace McCain, who has built an enormous lead among delegates and whose staff has taken to calling him the "presumptive nominee." McCain on Monday won the support of former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Gary Bauer, a onetime presidential candidate and former head of the Family Research Council. The previous day, President Bush offered to defend McCain against charges that he is no friend to conservatives.
And yet Huckabee shows no interest in stepping aside after his surprising strength in the South and Midwest powered him to eight victories in the past week. Polling shows him trailing in Tuesday's "Potomac Primary" voting in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. But he insists that he will not drop out until McCain has gathered the delegates needed to claim the Republican nomination -- a process that could take weeks.
Speaking to hundreds in Virginia Beach, Huckabee mocked the "national media" and "party bosses" for pushing a "coronation" of McCain.
"By the way, since it's all over, it's an interesting thing someone didn't tell the people in Kansas and somebody forget to tell the folks in Louisiana," he told the crowd, referring to his defeat of McCain in those two states over the weekend. "We are in this race for you and every other conservative American."
Huckabee's refusal to bow to the pressure of almost hourly McCain endorsements has made him the target of some in the GOP, who fear that an ongoing string of embarrassing defeats for the senator could hurt fundraising and delay efforts to refocus the battle on the Democrats.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), who heads a group of 100 conservatives in the House, on Monday urged his colleagues to "enthusiastically support" McCain, sending a not-so-subtle message in a statement that "the primary is all but over whether we like it or not -- no disrespect to Governor Huckabee."
McCain has refused to publicly join in the pressure campaign, saying only that "we have close to 800 delegates," and "last time I checked, Governor Huckabee had very few, so I think I'm happy with the situation I'm in." As of Monday night, McCain had 729 delegates of the 1,191 needed to win the nomination, while Huckabee had 241, according to an Associated Press tally.
Aides said McCain wants to respect the process. "There's an etiquette that takes place," senior adviser Steve Schmidt said. "The McCain campaign respects Governor Huckabee's right to participate for as long as he wishes to."
The string of losses is forcing McCain to do more to reach out to conservatives, dropping campaign literature in Virginia churches and contacting Catholic leaders about the senator's antiabortion record.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a onetime rival who is working to set up meetings between McCain and evangelical leaders, said McCain will start doing better among religious voters once he gets to know their leaders personally. "John's got to get to know them," he said.
But McCain's campaign strategists do not believe Huckabee's presence will create the kind of damage that Ronald Reagan did when he challenged President Gerald R. Ford in 1976 or that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) did to President Jimmy Carter four years later. Both incumbents were weakened by protracted nomination battles and lost in the general election.
By contrast, McCain's losses in conservative areas now could make him more palatable to some moderates in the general election, aides argue. And the continued focus on Huckabee gives McCain time to build his national organization out of the spotlight, one aide said.
"I don't mind having the time that comes with this," an aide said. "It slows down the pace of the game."
Huckabee aides aren't optimistic about winning any of the states in Tuesday's primaries, though they are competing hard in Virginia, and further losses make it closer to mathematically impossible for Huckabee to win the GOP nomination.
But Huckabee seems determined to compete until that is officially the case. His aides said while he has only about $1 million in cash on hand, he's raising about $150,000 a day, enough to continue running his campaign. A competition for Wisconsin comes Feb. 19, but the real focus is Texas on March 4.
In a series of television and campaign appearances Monday, Huckabee and his aides and supporters pushed back against the idea of an early departure. On Saturday, he joked that he planned to stay in because, "I have nowhere to go, right?"
"Even many McCain supporters have told us that they appreciate the constructive role that Governor Huckabee can play in the months to come, because a vigorous discussion will keep all the media 'oxygen' from migrating over to the Democratic contest," Huckabee chairman Ed Rollins and campaign manager Chip Saltsman wrote to supporters.
Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), one of five members of Congress to endorse Huckabee, said Monday that he has heard nothing from McCain backers about Huckabee dropping out. Nor, he said, should he.
Competition will help hone McCain's message and battle-test him for the general election, Inglis said, adding that Huckabee has energized a wing of the Republican Party and could be an attractive running mate.
"He'd bring some excitement to the ticket and a dimension that seems to be in short supply in Republican circles -- the ability to talk about issues of the heart, to express emotions, passion and understanding for people of ordinary means," Inglis said. "That's what Mike Huckabee has in bucketfuls."
Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), another Huckabee supporter, agreed. "John McCain went from being nowhere last August," Linder said. "He had the gumption to pull himself into this race all by himself. He's not going to be embarrassed by this."
But Huckabee still has a delicate job -- drawing distinctions with McCain on the stump while not going too far or attacking him by name. His stump speech now has a heavy emphasis on not allowing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants and his support of constitutional bans on same-sex marriage and abortion -- positions that contrast with those of McCain.
"What has the Senate done lately, other than try to put before you an immigration bill you hated so much you burned and melted their phone lines until they finally got the message that they work for us, it's not the other way around?" he said to loud applause Monday.
Staff writers Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.