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Huckabee hangs in despite the odds

  • Story Highlights
  • McCain has 723 delegates to Huckabee's 217, according to CNN calculations
  • Huckabee insists he's staying in until someone gets the nomination
  • Republicans face off Tuesday in Potomac primaries
  • Huckabee won Kansas, Louisiana this weekend; McCain won Washington state

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(CNN) -- GOP front-runner John McCain has all but sealed his party's presidential nomination, but instead of focusing on his national campaign, the Arizona senator is still contending with Mike Huckabee.

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Sen. John McCain has a commanding lead in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.

Some Republicans worry the longer Huckabee stays in the race, the harder he makes it for McCain to make amends with skeptical conservatives.

Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and former Baptist minister, has vowed to stay in until a candidate gets the 1,191 delegates needed to seal the nomination.

"As long as my guys are still waving their pompoms, I think we're going to stay on the field," Huckabee said Monday on CNN's "American Morning."

McCain has 723 delegates to Huckabee's 217, according to CNN calculations. Texas Rep. Ron Paul trails with 16 delegates.

"The goal is still to win ... Everybody keeps talking about, 'Well, the math doesn't work.' We don't know what is going to happen," Huckabee said. Video Watch Huckabee explain rationale for staying in race »

Huckabee had a good showing in this weekend's Republican contests, taking Kansas and Louisiana.

McCain's camp congratulated Huckabee on the victories but with an air of confidence, saying Huckabee threatened only to chip away at McCain's substantial lead.

"The reality is that John McCain is the presumptive nominee of our party," said campaign spokesman Brian Rogers. "We'll campaign in these upcoming states as long as Gov. Huckabee is in the race, but our main focus is on uniting the Republican Party for victory in November."

One strategist says a longer road to the nomination could help McCain.

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"As long as Mike Huckabee stays positive, and as long as he does not stimulate a third-party challenge from the right in the fall, Mike Huckabee staying in could actually help John McCain," said GOP pollster Whit Ayres.

Criticism from conservatives could make McCain look better to the independents who will play a big role in the general election, Ayres said.

McCain's campaign events Tuesday suggest he already sees himself as the nominee. Instead of a rally, he held a low-key question and answer session with members of the media and local officials in Annapolis, Maryland.

Even if Huckabee wins every remaining state with 50 percent of the vote to McCain's 40 percent, McCain would still be the nominee.

"The other scenario... if he kept winning by large margins, could he keep John McCain short of the line? That is a more probable scenario, but still an unlikely scenario," said CNN chief national correspondent John King.

McCain said people are still voting for Huckabee because "they like him."

"I never expected a unanimous vote, although I'd certainly like to have that," McCain said Monday in Annapolis, Maryland. Video Watch what McCain says about Huckabee »

McCain's camp is predicting victory in Tuesday's Potomac primaries, made up of contests in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.

The campaign says it's banking on doing well in those contests to prove what happened over the weekend doesn't mean McCain lacks support from his party.

McCain holds about a 2-1 lead over Huckabee in Maryland and Virginia, according to recent MSNBC/McClatchy/Mason-Dixon surveys.

"John McCain right now is leading in all the polls here in the Potomac primary, but if Mike Huckabee were to sort of sneak up and win in Virginia ... if he can turn out the householders and evangelicals and come close in Virginia, then he could make it very interesting," said conservative blogger Matt Lewis.

McCain got a boost Monday with an endorsement from conservative activist Gary Bauer.

President Bush this weekend offered to help McCain make his case to conservatives if he becomes the Republican presidential nominee, saying there is "no doubt" McCain is a "true conservative."

Speaking to "Fox News Sunday," the president said McCain is "very strong" on national defense, "tough fiscally," wants to make Bush's tax cuts permanent, and opposes abortion rights.

"His principles are sound and solid as far as I'm concerned," the president said.

McCain won the Republican caucuses in Washington state this weekend, but not without objections from Huckabee. Huckabee was upset because the state party chairman called the race early.

In a statement released Sunday, Huckabee's campaign said Washington's GOP Party Chairman Luke Esser called the race for McCain when Huckabee was only losing by 242 votes and more than 1,500 votes remained to be counted. Esser has said he remains confident he made the right call.

"You don't just throw people's votes out and say, 'Well, we're not going to bother counting them because we kind of think we know where this was going," Huckabee said Monday on "American Morning."

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He said the campaign has sent lawyers to the state to formally challenge the result.

McCain said he is confident he won the Washington caucuses, but said Huckabee has the right to challenge the result. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Josh Levs, John King, Alexander Mooney and Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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