WASHINGTON - Undeterred by either pleas that he step aside or delegate counts that proclaim his almost-certain defeat, Mike Huckabee is determined to press forward with his presidential candidacy against all odds, presenting fresh challenges to John McCain's attempts to consolidate the Republican Party behind him. Pressed to say why he is ignoring the delegate math, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister had a simple explanation: "I didn't major in math. I majored in miracles and I still believe in them."
Now that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has endorsed McCain and urged his delegates to support him, it may take a miracle to derail the Arizona senator's express to the nomination at the GOP convention in St. Paul.
Even without any of Romney's 280 delegates, McCain had 827 delegates to Huckabee's 217, according to a tally by CNN. A candidate needs 1,191 to win the nomination. A memo released by the McCain campaign said it would be impossible for Huckabee to win because there are not enough delegates at stake in the remaining states to vote.
"With only 744 delegates left on the table after tonight, Gov. Huckabee cannot win the Republican nomination for president," said the memo, released the day that McCain swept the three "Potomac primaries" in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
If anything, Romney's endorsement on Thursday strengthened Huckabee's resolve. He dismissed Romney's decision as another sign that "there is a lot of 'me too' going on in the party." But, he said proudly, "I just happen to be the leader of the 'not me' crowd."
He added, "There are those from the Beltway and those of the party establishment who believe it's time for the Republican Party to pull together, but there are still a lot of voices that have not been heard. This election should be about choices and voices, and not a coronation."
Even even after his upset bid in Virginia fell short, Huckabee showed no signs of dropping a quest that has showcased his affability, targeted his base voters in the evangelical community and scored surprising wins in states from Iowa to the deep South.
This determination has frustrated McCain and his strategists, who are now forced to spend money in upcoming states to avoid any possible embarrassments at the hands of the under-funded Huckabee.
"Of course I would like for him to withdraw today," confessed McCain on Wednesday. "I mean, it would be much easier. But I respect and have repeatedly said I respect his right to continue in this race."
McCain and Huckabee have established almost a mutual admiration society in recent months and McCain's aides are grateful that the final challenger standing is unlikely to turn the race nasty or personal. They even - cautiously - hope that having a challenger could prove beneficial to McCain.
"Gov. Huckabee's campaign, although we believe rather unnecessary in the process of winning delegates, is perfectly fine with us," said McCain campaign manager Rick Davis. He said it forces reporters to still pay attention to what McCain is saying and not be drawn away by the more dramatic battle being waged by Democrats.
Without an opponent, McCain's wins "probably wouldn't be on the front pages of the newspapers," he said. And he praised Huckabee for adding "a lot of entertainment, levity and substance to the campaign trail."
But Davis still wishes Huckabee would end his campaign.
"This is a campaign. And he has surrogates out there beating on us every chance they can," he said, complaining particularly about phone calls that a pro-Huckabee group made in Virginia that were harshly critical of McCain. "It's not a cakewalk. ... Some of them were pretty rough. We'd just as soon that those kinds of calls not be made."
Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general and senior advisor to Romney's campaign, also sees Huckabee doing damage to McCain because it "continues to accentuate the differences among Republicans as opposed to areas of agreement."
Staying in the race "kind of perpetuates a sore that could be healing as opposed to being constantly exposed," he argued.
But Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman and author of the newly published "Reclaiming Conservatism," suggested that Huckabee's campaign may help keep religious conservatives involved despite their rocky relationship with McCain.
"Huckabee, by being out there, gives that particular brand of conservative someone to vote for and to stay energized instead of sitting at home," Edwards said, stressing that Huckabee's positive tone is important.
"If Huckabee were running an anti-McCain campaign it would be different. But he's not. He is out there running a very positive campaign; He is not attacking McCain at all, so I can't see a drawback here."
Huckabee made a similar point at a reporters' breakfast last week sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. He noted that he and McCain stood apart from the other major Republican candidates by the civility of their two campaigns and added, "I'd like to believe that we are proving that a civil discourse and a campaign of ideas and contrasts is possible without it being a demolition derby."
Sounding resigned to his campaign's likely fate, Huckabee suggested a broader purpose beyond hoping for any miracle.
Affable as always, Huckabee gave voice during the breakfast to the frustration of many evangelical Christians at being marginalized by the party establishment, which welcomes them as foot soldiers to GOP campaigns but denies them a leadership role.
Demands that he abandon his campaign well prior to the convention have exacerbated the relationship just as many religious conservatives are demanding seats in the front of the campaign bus.
Too many in the GOP establishment are responding by saying, "We'd appreciate it if you'd just go the back and sit back there, and we'll let you know when you need to come and show up," said Huckabee, adding, "That's not going over very well."
Moreover, Huckabee hinted that another reason to continue campaigning would be to maximize his leverage at the convention, and particularly over the content of the party's platform.
"It is very important to recognize that I can't go there without realizing there are a lot of people who will go to the convention as supporters of mine for a reason," said Huckabee, who is campaigning as a champion of a human life amendment to the Constitution and of junking the income tax in favor of a national levy on consumption.
Even so, some party activists wonder how McCain could possibly have benefited from Huckabee's victories in contests last weekend in Louisiana and Kansas, along with a contested outcome in caucuses in Washington State.
"I would have wanted to sail right through these weekend primaries with clear victories, knowing that I had some fences to mend with my base," said Greg Mueller, a conservative consultant who has sat out the campaign on the sidelines.