Talk about bad timing. On Friday, Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) - who has endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) - called Fmr. Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) to make the case that dropping out of the race was in the best interests of the party. The next day, Huckabee decisively won the KS caucus (60 percent to 24 percent), and edged McCain out in the LA primary (43 percent to 42 percent). In the WA caucus, the final tally is so close that Huckabee is challenging the results, claiming that the state Republican Party chairman prematurely declared McCain the winner with only 87 percent of the votes counted and just 242 votes separating the two candidates. (As of this writing, neither CBS News nor Fox News has called the race.)
Huckabee characterized the conversation as "cordial" but said he could not take it seriously, telling Perry "since he was already on someone else's team that I had to discount his advice since he had a vested interest in my not winning and McCain winning."
Even though he could not have foreseen Huckabee's surprise blowout in KS, Perry was just wasting his breath. Huckabee has repeatedly insisted that he's in it to win it – or, at least until McCain has the 1,191 delegates needed to secure the Republican nomination.
Here's how Huckabee explained his rationale for staying in the race to Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet The Press":
Tim Russert: [Y]ou have 231 ... That means you need 960 ... There are only 819 delegates to win. So how are you going to do that?
Mike Huckabee: Well, you know, I don't know how the math works out, but there's always the chance something stumbles. The thing is it's not just how many I need, Senator McCain also needs that many. And if he doesn't get that many, he's not the nominee either. This thing could go to the convention. Who knows? But the one thing I know, when people say, "Isn't it a rather complicated and convoluted path to victory?" You bet it is. But it's a real easy path to defeat. All I have to do is walk off the field, game's over. ...
Huckabee also believes that that he's doing McCain a favor by staying in. After speaking before the attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Friday, Huckabee told reporters:
You know the old proverb is as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. The fact is no boxer is ever prepared to go into the ring if he's never sparred. If we're really serious about taking it all the way to November, we better have a candidate who's truly battle-tested.
On "Meet The Press" Huckabee made a convincing case that "healthy debate" on the issues is good for voters and for the party:
Russert: Are you concerned that you're draining resources that the Republicans need, that you're embarrassing Senator McCain, and that you're providing the Democrats an opportunity to win in November by continuing this fight?
Huckabee: I didn't set the rules for how one obtains the nomination; the party did. So the party sets rules and says, "Here's how the process works." They were the ones who front-loaded and allowed it to be front-loaded, so you had states like California and New York going up early, large delegate counts. But neither of those states, Tim, are going to be really decisive for the Republican in November.
Now, the question I have is, do we tell the people in Texas and Ohio and Pennsylvania and all these other states - North Carolina, Nebraska - that "You don't matter. ... We're going to go ahead and pull the plug on this whole thing and not even give you a chance to express yourselves"? If our party can't have a thoughtful discussion and some meaningful debate and dialogue about the issues important to us as a party, then ... we're really not prepared to lead. ... And the Democrats haven't settled their nominee either. So for us to suddenly act like that we have to all step aside and have a coronation instead of an election ... that's the antithesis of everything Republicans are supposed to believe. We believe that competition breeds excellence and that the lack of it breeds mediocrity.
Writing for Townhall.com, David R. Stokes, Senior Pastor of Fair Oaks Church in Fairfax, VA, argues that until Mitt Romney (R-MA) quit the race, conservatives never really took a good look at Huckabee: "Is it too much to ask that before Republicans rush to the warm fuzzy of unity that one more look be given to the man from Arkansas? ... [M]aybe it will be the first look for some. What's the harm in that?"
Huckabee's wins indicate that McCain still needs to shore up his conservative cred, but do not in any way threaten his status as the presumptive nominee. Turnout was higher amongst conservatives (especially those self-identified as "very" conservative) than moderates in both KS and LA, and those voters were likely casting protest votes against McCain. Some 20 states have yet to vote, and conservatives want to keep McCain striving for their support. They may also find it cathartic to vote against him while they have the chance – and if they can get their pique out of their systems now it will be easier for McCain to unify the party as the Republican standard bearer.
Besides, if all the drama were on the Dem side, neither McCain nor Huckabee would get any media attention for weeks – and maybe not until the Dem convention, if the race between Obama and Hillary remained unsettled until the bitter end.