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THE BATTLE FOR THE NOMINATION

Despite GOP's Push for McCain, Huckabee Won't Pull Out of Race

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At a press conference Monday morning in Annapolis, Md., Sen. John McCain, along with former Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R-Md.), vows to compete for the presidential nomination in the traditionally democratic state of Maryland.Video by Jennifer Crandall/washingtonpost.comEditor: Jonathan Forsythe/washingtonpost.com
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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."

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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.


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