WASHINGTON (CNN) - There was no line to get in to Mike Huckabee’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference this morning – an event that featured none of the chaotic scenes that greeted his GOP rivals earlier in the week.
There was a group of sign-waving supporters in the lobby of the hotel where the forum is being held, but no crowds of campaign workers just outside the ballroom where he spoke pressing attendees to support the former Arkansas governor in the conference’s presidential straw poll - just three bleary-eyed young volunteers.
Rows of empty seats dotted the ballroom long after his speech began; the standing ovations only roused about half the audience from their seats.
It could have been the 9 a.m. Saturday time slot, a low-profile scheduling choice two days after the rest of the Republican presidential field addressed the conference.
It could have been the fact that Huckabee - despite his sentimental favorite status among social conservatives in attendance here - has, like John McCain, never been completely embraced by a significant bloc of the CPAC crowd. (In his case, the holdouts are the fiscal conservatives represented by the Club for Growth, which has spent vast sums battling his run since long before his unexpected Iowa win.)
Or it could be that even among his most passionate supporters, a CNN reporter Saturday could not find a single one who believed he would win the White House.
Some thought he was running to increase his odds of a vice presidential slot on the Republican ticket. Others – excited by Huckabee’s recent endorsement by evangelical icon James Dobson - said his continued campaign was meant to draw attention to social issues that would otherwise be ignored, and give an outlet to conservatives frustrated by their party’s apparent decision to back maverick John McCain.
And a few thought he was just running until he could surpass the delegate count received by former GOP contender Mitt Romney, with whom he often tangled on the campaign trail – though some worried he might follow Romney’s lead, and drop out of the race on the same stage where the former Massachusetts governor ended his run earlier this week.
Huckabee acknowledged those rumors early in his Saturday speech. “I know there was some speculation I’d be coming here today to announce I was getting out of the race,” he said with a grin. “….Am I quitting? No, I am not.”
“I know the pundits and I know what they say, the math doesn’t work out,” he said later, acknowledging the steep statistical odds to his presidential ambitions. “Well I didn’t major in math, I majored in miracles. And I still believe in those, too."
But numbers matter – and at some point in the next few days, it may no longer be possible for Huckabee to accumulate the number of delegates needed to catch up to GOP frontrunner John McCain.
At least three of every four questions reporters asked Huckabee after his speech Saturday were about the timing and circumstances of a potential exit from the race. Most of the rest were about his relationship with John McCain.
Senior Huckabee advisers Chip Saltsman and Ed Rollins gave reporters at CPAC Saturday a memo that insisted his continued presence in the race would help, not hurt, the Republican Party because it would draw media "oxygen" from the heated Democratic race - and that this idea was being advanced by McCain supporters.
Huckabee pointed to $250,000 his campaign had raised online in 24 hours as a sign of the health of his presidential effort. When a reporter pointed out that it was likely McCain would soon reach the delegate count needed to secure the nomination, Huckabee replied, “I know I won’t drop out at least until that happens. Then we’ll see.”
- CNN Associate Political Editor Rebecca Sinderbrand