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Huckabee Lags, But Insists He's Staying In

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 Kennessaw, 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 and Romney draw much of their support from the same pool of conservative voters, while McCain tends to attract voters of all ideological stripes. Romney, himself, has raised the possibility that Huckabee might be continuing his bid solely "to try and split that conservative vote."

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. He added: "You can't just have a change of opinion on fundamental issues over and over and wait until you're running for president to do it."

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."

In the AP interview, Huckabee contended he can still rack up enough delegates to win the nomination, but he declined to go into detail, and ignored polls that show him trailing McCain and Romney in many states.

"Frankly, I kind of resent this idea that it's mathematically impossible ... because votes haven't been counted yet in 92 percent of the electorate," Huckabee said, adding that "things are still on target for us.

Huckabee's campaign has been marked by peaks and valleys.

He toiled at the back of a crowded GOP pack for most of last year. But aided by fellow Christian evangelicals and his stellar communications skills, Huckabee broke through last fall and defeated Romney in the leadoff Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.

He hasn't had the same luck anywhere else.

Huckabee barely competed in New Hampshire and Michigan - and lost both. So, too, did he fall in fiercely contested South Carolina. By Florida, Huckabee's money was drying up and his staff was thinning; he made little effort there.

Now Huckabee is having trouble being taken seriously.

He mostly sat on the sidelines at a California debate last week while McCain and Romney fought it out. "I didn't come here to umpire a ball game between these two. I came here to get a chance to swing at a few myself," Huckabee complained.

Some aides insist Huckabee is trying to emerge as the more conservative alternative to McCain. Other backers aren't convinced.

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.

He disputes such talk.

"I've never thought of my campaign as being all about just being the evangelical candidate," Huckabee said.

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.

"I'm running for president," he contends, refusing to entertain such talk.

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