- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2008

John McCain’s campaign manager yesterday said the candidate will not pander for conservative support, even as his surrogates have made a second overture to see why chief competitor Mike Huckabee has not dropped out of the Republican presidential race.

Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a McCain supporter, called former Arkansas Sen. Tim Hutchinson on Friday to inquire why Mr. Huckabee was still running. That was in addition to last week’s call to Mr. Huckabee from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another McCain supporter, asking him to drop out of the race.

“Frank and I are old friends, good friends. He called and said: What’s Governor Huckabee thinking, what’s he want to do, why’s he still in the race?” Mr. Hutchinson said. He said Mr. Keating did not ask for Mr. Huckabee to drop out of the race — something the Huckabee campaign says the Texas governor did.

“Frank did not do that. Frank was asking more along the lines of: John wants to know, what’s the governor thinking, what’s his goal in this, does he have a different agenda,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “They would like to have Governor Huckabee out but they are being very careful not to unnecessarily antagonize.”

In both cases, Mr. Huckabee’s answer why he’s still in was simple, according to Mr. Hutchinson and other campaign sources familiar with the calls: “To win.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Perry said he wouldn’t discuss the call.

Mr. Keating’s office at the American Council of Life Insurers, where he now works, said he was traveling and couldn’t return a phone call.

Mr. Huckabee told reporters he is in the race until someone reaches the 1,191 delegates needed to secure the nomination, and says voters deserve to have a choice on the ballot.

Mr. McCain has a nearly insurmountable lead in the race for the Republican nomination, but Mr. Huckabee’s repeated strong performances among conservative voters — on Tuesday he won a majority of self-identified conservatives in Virginia’s primary, though Mr. McCain won a plurality in Maryland —is a theme the press has focused on. And it is a theme Mr. McCain would like to end.

But Rick Davis, Mr. McCain’s campaign manager, told reporters at a luncheon hosted by the Christian Science Monitor yesterday that Mr. McCain is happy to have Mr. Huckabee in the race.

“Governor Huckabee’s campaign, although we believe rather unnecessary in the process of winning delegates, is perfectly fine with us,” he said, adding that having a contested nomination earns them needed press attention.

He also disputed the sentiment from some conservatives that Mr. McCain needs to make a specific gesture to conservatives, such as selecting a vice-presidential nominee they can be excited about, to win their support. Instead, Mr. Davis said the important move is conservatives joining the McCain campaign, including defense, economic and social conservatives.

“Every single thread of the Republican blanket has covered John McCain,” he said. “The grand gesture I think is really being made on the part of conservatives to John McCain, saying, we believe that you would make a good president and are willing to put our political capital to your disposal.”

He said Mr. McCain’s reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and endorsements from high-profile names such as former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, prove that.

Mr. McCain didn’t use the word “conservative” in his victory address in Alexandria on Tuesday night, but he did send out an e-mail ad through Human Events, the conservative weekly newspaper, titled “We must unite as a party,” pleading for financial support.

“I cannot succeed in this endeavor without the support of dedicated conservatives like you. And today, I write to ask for your support,” he wrote.

Mr. McCain yesterday held a closed-door meeting with House Republicans to consolidate his support and begin unifying the party’s elected leaders behind him.

Even though many of those Republicans have fought Mr. McCain bitterly on immigration, campaign finance reform and other issues, Mr. Davis said the meeting was so congenial it was “almost like a rally.”

Mr. Davis was asked about the difference in enthusiasm between Republicans and Sen. Barack Obama, who draws giant crowds to his rallies and had thousands attend his victory speech in Wisconsin on Tuesday night after he swept the Maryland, Virginia and District primaries.

Mr. Davis said there’s plenty of room to undercut Mr. Obama’s support by pointing out information such as his ranking by National Journal as the most liberal senator in 2007.

“I don’t know if all 17,000 of those people who were in his audience last night know that — but they will,” he said. “I promise you, by the end of this campaign, you know, that will be right there on your refrigerator, under one of those magnets.”

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