Huckabee, McCain woo conservatives on eve of Kansas caucuses

– Mike Huckabee drew enthusiastic crowds Friday in Kansas and campaigned on the eve of the state’s caucuses against the notion that rival candidate John McCain has a lock on the Republican presidential nomination.

But McCain, the Arizona senator, made a stop in Wichita and wooed the same conservative Republicans that Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, was courting. Conservatives control the Kansas party, making abortion opponents and evangelical Christians important constituencies.

Republicans planned to caucus Saturday at 67 sites. Their votes will determine how the candidates divide 36 of the state’s 39 delegates to the Republican National Convention in September in Minneapolis.

“I’ll stay in until I’m completely defeated or until the convention has ruled me out,” Huckabee told reporters after a rally in Topeka. “Certainly, a lot of the McCain supporters would like for me to leave. It sure would make it easier on them.”

Huckabee’s tour of the state began in Olathe with a rally at MidAmerica Nazarene University where an estimated crowd of 1,200 to 1,300 people filled an auditorium and its lobby and flowed into other rooms.

A rally in Wichita attracted about 1,000 supporters, and about 600 people crowded a hotel meeting room in Topeka to hear him speak before he finished his tour with a rally in Garden City.

Many were conservatives who hoped to show that the GOP race isn’t over, despite McCain’s commanding lead in the delegate count. In Topeka, one woman held up a sign that said, “Christ is alive & so is Huckabee.”

“The conservatives will come out, so if Huckabee does well, it will show that the conservatives have not given up on trying to defeat McCain,” said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist.

About 300 people turned out for McCain’s appearance in Wichita, and Sen. Sam Brownback, a leading conservative, rallied the crowd, declaring, “He is a conservative.”

McCain also took up that theme: “I am proud to carry the banner of a conservative Republican with a record of conservative thought and action and voting and principles and values into this election in November.”

McCain not only has Brownback’s support but also the endorsement of the state’s two representatives on the Republican National Committee, both moderates. Also, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s decision Thursday to suspend his campaign had many Republicans viewing McCain as the certain nominee.

He has 707 of the 1,191 convention delegates he’ll need to secure the nomination, compared to 195 for Huckabee.

Some conservatives think the race is over. Alan Weldon, an activist from Wichita, said McCain is the likely nominee but said the caucuses in Kansas remain relevant.

If Huckabee does well, he said, “I think that sends a message to John McCain that he needs to reach closer to his base.”

But later, while traveling with McCain, Brownback said it will be difficult for McCain to prevail in Kansas because Republicans are holding a caucus rather than a primary. In caucuses, fewer – and more conservative – voters tend to turn out.

After Huckabee’s rally in Topeka, nine conservative Republican legislators, including House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, announced their support for him. Kansans for Life’s political action committee also endorsed him, urging its members, who form the state’s largest anti-abortion group, to attend his rallies.

Huckabee didn’t disappoint abortion opponents, telling the Topeka crowd: “If we come to the conclusion where we say abortion is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.”

McCain has faced criticism from conservatives for having voted against President Bush’s tax cuts, helped write a campaign finance law some of them see as restricting advocacy groups and supported a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

“I don’t think he’s at all a conservative. I am,” said Ron Rice, a 75-year-old retired General Motors salesman who attended Huckabee’s rally in Olathe but said he was undecided.

At the Topeka rally, 21-year-old Eric Stein, who’s studying military history at the University of Kansas, called Huckabee a “God-fearing man” and said it was important to him that Huckabee is an ordained Baptist minister.

“Us Baptists, we kind of stick together,” he joked.

Huckabee also received the endorsement Thursday of prominent evangelical leader James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family.

Asked about that in Wichita, McCain noted that he’d won primaries in every part of the nation and would continue to wage a national campaign.

“We will contest every state and we are confident that we can proceed with success,” he said.

During his rally, McCain discussed national security, his opposition to withdrawing American troops from Iraq and proposals for improving veterans’ health care.

McCain’s service in the Senate and his status as a Vietnam War hero made him an attractive candidate to Evan Lassen, 71, who’s semiretired from the petroleum industry.

“He knows the inner working of the government,” Lassen said. “He knows the inner working of the military.”

Some Republicans are weary of hearing about a conservative backlash against McCain and suggest it’s time for the party to rally around him, so that he can prepare for a tough general election campaign.

“This mentality, in my opinion, is completely backward,” said Ryan Wright, executive director of the Kansas Traditional Republican Majority, a moderate group. “I don’t know how many more states John McCain has to win before this narrative goes away.”

Associated Press Writers Roxana Hegeman and Libby Quaid in Wichita contributed to this story.

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