CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Like an episode of “Survivor,” West Virginia’s Republican convention ended Tuesday with temporary allies voting off a front-runner.
In the end, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee walked away with the big prize in the convention’s two rounds of voting: West Virginia’s support in his bid to become president.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the pre-convention favorite, was left to complain loudly about last-minute maneuvers that saw Huckabee strike a deal with supporters of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the national front-runner, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, an also-ran, to squeeze Romney out of the winner’s circle.
Romney had walked into the convention with a strong base of support and a very organized campaign. But things changed quickly.
The convention’s rules stipulated that in order for a candidate to win the convention, he needed to have a majority of votes. Delegates representing each county voted twice.
Romney can’t seal the deal
Romney won 41 percent during the first round to 33 percent for Huckabee. McCain won 16 percent, and Paul brought up the rear with 10 percent. Since no one had a majority, delegates voted a second time, with Paul eliminated.
Representatives of McCain’s and Paul’s campaigns urged their supporters to put their votes behind Huckabee. McCain’s goal was to stop Romney, his closest competitor in the national polls, from picking up momentum; Paul’s goal soon became clear.
As the Huckabee and Paul campaigns huddled, they reached an arrangement: Paul would throw his support to Huckabee in exchange for three of the 18 national delegates that Huckabee could claim with the victory.
“We struck a deal with the Huckabee people,” Edward Burgess, a spokesman for Paul’s campaign, told NBC affiliate WSAZ-TV of Huntington.
“They came to us and dealt with us honorably and with respect. And so we told them that if Dr. Paul didn’t make it through the first round, that we would go for their man,” Burgess said. “They pledged us three delegates to the Republican National Convention.”
McCain staffers, meanwhile, began parading around the hall carrying signs telling their delegates to vote for Huckabee.
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Huckabee squeaks through
By the time the second vote took place, Huckabee had just enough to win, 51 percent, to Romney’s 47 percent. Twelve die-hard believers insisted on voting for McCain despite the campaign’s urging them to back Huckabee.
Romney staffers, incensed with the outcome, called for a roll call vote, but the request was denied. Afterward, they furiously denounced what they called a “Washington backroom deal.”
“Unfortunately, this is what Senator McCain’s inside-Washington ways look like: He cut a backroom deal with the tax-and-spend candidate he thought could best stop Governor Romney’s campaign of conservative change,” said Beth Myers, Romney’s national campaign manager.
“Governor Romney had enough respect for the Republican voters of West Virginia to make an appeal to them about the future of the party based on issues. This is why he led on today’s first ballot,” Myers said.
“Sadly, Senator McCain cut a Washington backroom deal in a way that once again underscores his legacy of working against Republicans who are interested in championing conservative policies and rebuilding the party.”
McCain, Huckabee scoff at complaints
Both Huckabee and McCain rejected the Romney campaign’s implications that anything shady took place.
“Today, Mitt Romney was whining. Yesterday he was saying we shouldn’t be whining,” Huckabee said Tuesday night in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.
“Once again, he’s gone from the whine to the no-whine position,” Huickabee added. “I want to at least congratulate Mitt Romney for being consistent.”
Speaking at a rally in San Diego, McCain urged Romney to “move on.”
“I’ve never had a conversation with him [Huckabee] or any of his people about anything to do with that,” McCain told cheering supporters. “Nothing whatsoever.”
“And I think, frankly, it’s a bit insulting to Governor Huckabee, who won that, by alleging such a thing,” he added. “Governor Huckabee is a decent and honorable person.”
Other Republicans in West Virginia viewed the convention as a success.
“I think we made a statement today that there are conservative Republicans in West Virginia,” sad Betty Bailey, president of the state’s Republican Women, who voted for Huckabee. “I came in undecided, although I thought I would probably vote for Romney. But then I heard Huckabee and was swayed.”
Dorothy Horn, a McCain backer who threw her vote to Huckabee in the second round, said she thought “the outcome overall was fair.”
“It gave us a feeling of participation in the process,” Horn said.
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com; Beth Gorczyca Ryan of WBOY-TV in Clarksburg, W.Va.; and Mike Waterhouse and Scott Saxton of WSAZ-TV in Huntington, W.Va. NBC affiliate KNSD of San Diego contributed to this report.