WASHINGTON — Mike Huckabee's recent refrain about believing in miracles makes the ordained Baptist minister appear almost prophetic.
Christian evangelicals in Virginia who favored him in droves seemed to send the would-be Republican presidential nominee John McCain a message from on high — they won't roll over so easily.
Although the Arizona senator has effectively sealed the GOP nomination, Huckabee and his faith-focused followers waged a fierce fight to overtake McCain in what should have been a stronghold for the Vietnam prisoner of war, given the state's long military tradition and Virginia Sen. John Warner's backing.
In the end, McCain captured Virginia — and its 60 delegates — but the primary was surprisingly hard-fought and underscored just how much work he still has to do to get a critical portion of the Republican Party base on board before the general election.
"McCain will be our nominee and he is starting to consolidate the conservative base, but as long as Huckabee stays in the race ... there will always be holdouts who find it easier to vote for Huckabee than to unify behind McCain," said Todd Harris, a Republican strategist and former Fred Thompson adviser. "The best thing for our party would be to start the healing process now and unite behind McCain, but Huckabee's campaign is standing in the way of that."
So, too, it seems, are religious conservatives.
Loyalty to trailing Huckabee
Virginia exit polls showed that white born-again and evangelical Christian voters lined up strongly behind Huckabee and were unwilling to leave him even though McCain has an all but insurmountable lead in the delegate race.
"I didn't major in math. I majored in miracles, and I still believe in them," Huckabee, the Arkansas politician-preacher and darling of the religious right, told a cheering crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend. His comments came after a key endorsement, the backing of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.
Clearly Huckabee's flock listened — and pushed to give him one such miracle.
Twice as many white born-again and evangelical Christian voters participated in this year's Virginia GOP primary compared with eight years ago in the last contested GOP presidential primary. On Tuesday, four in 10 GOP voters claimed that label, compared with just two in 10 in 2000, who called themselves members of the religious right.
Of those voters Tuesday, six in 10 were Huckabee voters while only a quarter were behind McCain, according to surveys conducted for The Associated Press and television networks.
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White born again and evangelical Christian voters have made up Huckabee's core of support all year. He has been getting about four in 10 of their votes in states that held competitive GOP primaries before Virginia while McCain has been getting support from three in 10.
More modest showing in Maryland
With the candidate field thinned considerably, Huckabee's margin among the group in Virginia — 63 percent — was among his biggest of the year. He got 70 percent of their vote in his home state of Arkansas and 59 percent in Louisiana. He also got nearly half the born-again and evangelical vote in the Iowa caucuses; he scored his first victory there, fueled by the love of religious conservatives.
Compared with Virginia, Huckabee's advantage with that voting group was more modest in Maryland. They made up three in 10 GOP voters in that state, and half supported Huckabee. In both states, McCain carried more than six in 10 voters who said they were not born again or evangelical Christians.
In the all-important delegate count, McCain has 789 delegates to Huckabee's 241, with 1,191 needed to nominate.
McCain's deficit among these voters isn't shocking; he has a rocky history with Christian evangelicals.
Despite his solid anti-abortion Senate voting record, critics view him warily for what they consider a long list of infractions that ran afoul of their objectives, including his refusal to back a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He says states have a right to make that decision.
In his first run eight years ago, he derided their leaders, labeling some "agents of intolerance." Since then, he has sought to repair relations, speaking, for instance, at the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia in 2006.
Reaching out to conservatives
McCain has continued to reach out to conservatives in an effort to unite the party since all but locking up the party nod last week.
In a plea to conservative activists then, McCain said: "It is my sincere hope that even if you believe I have occasionally erred in my reasoning as a fellow conservative, you will still allow that I have, in many ways important to all of us, maintained the record of a conservative."
At least one high-profile evangelical leader, Gary Bauer, heard McCain — and endorsed him.
But, as Virginia showed, McCain's message hasn't yet resonated with the masses.
He has nine months to ensure that it does.
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