WASHINGTON (AP) — Mike Huckabee hasn’t won a Republican presidential contest in a month. The result: money is tighter, his staff is smaller and he can’t seem to get the attention he once did.
Still, he says he’s sticking around for the long haul — well past Tuesday’s coast-to-coast primaries and caucuses if need be.
“I’ll stay in until someone has 1,191 delegates,” the former Arkansas governor insisted Sunday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from Kennesaw, Ga. He was referring to the number of convention delegates needed to win the party nod. “A year ago, nobody said I’d still be here. Look who’s still on his feet.”
With 21 states holding contests Tuesday and offering more than 1,000 delegates, Huckabee’s continued presence could be a major factor in what essentially has become a two-man race between Republican front-runner John McCain and Mitt Romney.
A Southerner and one-time Baptist preacher, Huckabee hopes to perform strongly, if not win, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Missouri to reinvigorate his campaign.
In those states, Huckabee could end up helping McCain — he calls him a friend — by peeling away votes and delegates from Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is competing there after essentially ceding big-prize Northeast battlegrounds.
Huckabee dismisses any notion that he’s a stalking horse for McCain and that he is trying to derail Romney. “I would really take umbrage to that. Maybe that it’s Romney’s staying in the race to take votes from me,” he told the AP.
That comment aside, Huckabee virtually ignored McCain in appearances last week and instead criticized Romney’s equivocations or reversals on gay rights, abortion rights and gun rights.
“Here’s a man who didn’t hit political puberty in the conservative ranks until 60 years old,” Huckabee said at one point.
At a campaign appearance Sunday in Georgia, Huckabee said if anyone should get out of the race now, maybe it should be Romney.
“Why don’t you give it up and go back to Wall Street,” he said in Macon. “This ol’ Arkansas boy is not for sale.”
Romney laughed when asked about Huckabee’s remarks, saying: “It sounds a little extreme I think at this stage. He’s a fine person. I’d never suggest anybody get out of the race. That’s their own decision.”
It’s possible Huckabee has motives beyond winning the nomination. Among them: taking down Romney, solidifying his position as a new leader of the religious right and setting himself up for life after the campaign trail.
Huckabee’s votes come almost exclusively from the Christian evangelical wing of the party. Some supporters suspect he’s staying in the race to ensure that he has a say when the party creates its platform at the national convention in September, and to emerge as an emboldened leader of the religious right.
Speculation also abounds that he is positioning himself for a vice presidential slot. And with no job to fall back on, and with books to sell and speaking engagements to line up, it’s possible Huckabee believes his stock will rise higher the longer he stays in the race.