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Defeats signal challenges for McCain

Just as Senator John McCain appeared poised to become the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, he was reminded over the weekend that many Republican voters still have not climbed aboard his bandwagon.
/ Source: The New York Times

Just as Senator John McCain appeared poised to become the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, he was reminded over the weekend that many Republican voters still have not climbed aboard his bandwagon.

Mr. McCain, who won enough delegates in the coast-to-coast nominating contests on Tuesday to place him mathematically beyond the reach of his Republican rivals, suffered embarrassing losses in the Louisiana primary and the Kansas caucuses on Saturday to former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.

Mr. Huckabee, who brags that in college “I didn’t major in math, I majored in miracles,” also wrestled Mr. McCain to a virtual draw on Saturday in the Washington State caucuses. Party officials declared Mr. McCain the winner by several hundred votes.

The Huckabee campaign announced Sunday on its Web site that it would challenge the results of the Washington caucuses. At issue are 1,500 votes that the Huckabee campaign says were not counted.

Results of the weekend contests do not affect Mr. McCain’s solid lead, or change the likelihood of his winning the nomination. But they underlined the thinness of support for him among religious and social conservatives, who make up the bulk of Mr. Huckabee’s voters, and the problem that has dogged Mr. McCain’s presidential aspirations since 2000: how to overcome the distrust he elicits from that core constituency in his party while maintaining credibility as the unorthodox Republican whom moderates, independents and many Democrats like so much.

Before the elections on Saturday, Mr. McCain seemed ready to begin casting the net wide for those independent voters.

“We have to energize our base and yet continue to reach out because we know that the formula for success in most campaigns, as you know, is your base, independents and Reagan Democrats,” he told reporters on a flight from Wichita, Kan., to Seattle.

In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” President Bush proclaimed Mr. McCain, of Arizona, a “true conservative,” but added that there was still fence-mending to do with the party’s conservative base.

“I think that if John is the nominee,” Mr. Bush said, “he has got some convincing to do to convince people that he is a solid conservative. And I’ll be glad to help him if he is the nominee.”

Mr. McCain’s strong showing on Tuesday forced former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts from the contest and left Mr. Huckabee as the last major hurdle between Mr. McCain and the nomination.

In Mr. Huckabee, Mr. McCain has found an opponent who is in some ways the best of rivals, and, in other ways, the worst of rivals.

Mr. Huckabee has avoided negative campaigning as a general rule, and has been almost scrupulous in treating Mr. McCain with respect. At a point where public attention to the all-but-settled Republican presidential contest might have lagged, Mr. Huckabee’s competitiveness guarantees that will not happen.

But while it is unlikely that Mr. Huckabee will win, he can bloody Mr. McCain before the contest is decided.

When Mr. Huckabee told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week that he favored a constitutional amendment banning abortion and an amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and woman, the roar of the crowd was as much a rebuke of Mr. McCain, who has declined to support both proposals, as it was support for the speaker.

Mr. Huckabee followed up that appearance with a visit Sunday to the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s church in Lynchburg, Va. In an address to the congregation, Mr. Huckabee marveled at “what an incredible influence” Mr. Falwell, who died last year, “had in this country,” and he emphasized how fond he had always been of the man who founded the Moral Majority. He did not have to remind the parishioners that Mr. McCain once called their former pastor an agent of intolerance.

To the delight of his supporters, Mr. Huckabee has insisted that he intends to press on, despite the delegate count weighing heavily against him.

“His supporters are true believers who don’t care so much about pragmatic considerations,” said Todd Harris, who served as communications director for Fred D. Thompson’s campaign. “They believe he has a message and that that message should be heard. And as long as they keep sending him money, it will be.”

As if to reinforce that notion, Mr. Huckabee’s campaign vowed on Sunday that it would be “exploring all available legal options” regarding the outcome in Washington State.

“The Huckabee campaign is deeply disturbed by the obvious irregularities in the Washington State Republican precinct caucuses,” the campaign’s chairman, Ed Rollins, said in a statement. “It is very unfortunate that the Washington State party chairman, Luke Esser, chose to call the race for John McCain after only 87 percent of the vote was counted.”

The McCain campaign declined to comment on the Huckabee campaign’s statement. “We respect Governor Huckabee and his decision to campaign as he sees fit,” said Jill Hazelbaker, a McCain spokeswoman.

On Friday, Mr. McCain said he understood the skepticism of some conservatives toward his candidacy. He said he had made overtures to conservatives, and would continue to do so.

“Look, after 2000, there were a lot of McCainiacs who were very angry and bitter,” he said, referring to his bruising loss to Mr. Bush. “And after President Bush and I got together, I worked very hard to say, look, you know, a lot of people were bitter about South Carolina, a lot of people were bitter because, you know, when you invest your hard work and your effort and your passion into a candidate. I understand that there was a period there where you’ve got to unify people and get them to recognize what the major goal is.”