WASHINGTON — It would take a miracle for him to win the Republican presidential nomination, but former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee isn't going away, at least not yet.
After a strong showing Tuesday in Virginia, he immediately headed to Wisconsin, hoping that his populist economic message will win votes from anxious blue-collar workers in next Tuesday's primary, and plans to campaign intensely in Texas, looking for a strong turnout from religious conservatives in the March 4 contest there.
Yet even if he wins both, and other primaries through the spring, he's all but certain to fall far short of wresting the nomination away from Arizona Sen. John McCain.
McCain's campaign said Wednesday that Huckabee already has been mathematically eliminated — he needs more delegates than are still available.
However, an Associated Press count found that enough delegates remain in play to keep Huckabee alive politically — but barely. Even under that count, he needs to win 96 percent of the remaining delegates. To say that's unlikely is a large understatement.
So why does he keep running?
"I know people say that the math doesn't work out," Huckabee said this week. "Folks, I didn't major in math. I majored in miracles, and I still believe in those, too."
Or perhaps he's running to show he can win voters that McCain can't, increasing his value as a possible running mate.
Or maybe because every win or strong finish — like Tuesday's in Virginia — sets Huckabee up as the next guy in line. And that, conservative strategist Keith Appell said Wednesday, is a good place to be in a party that almost always nominates the next guy in line.
This time, though, it's all but over for Huckabee.
"The path to victory is a complicated one for me," Huckabee conceded Tuesday in Washington. "But the path to defeat is a real easy one. All I've got to do is quit."
Huckabee knows he's woefully short of the 1,191 delegates needed to win at the Republican National Convention next summer in St. Paul, Minn.
But even if Huckabee is mathematically eliminated, McCain might not secure the 1,191 delegates for weeks.
"I don't know if Senator McCain may have a stumble. He may. But he may not. It could be that nobody ends up with 1,191 delegates prior to the convention and we go to the convention," Huckabee said.
Even if Huckabee can't win the nomination, he'd go to the convention with enough delegates and stature to command attention, if not respect.
One role he'd play is champion for the conservatives who've supported him. In Virginia, for example, Huckabee won a majority of self-described conservatives, evangelical Christians and voters who make less than $75,000 a year or who lack college educations.
One place he'd likely play that role would be in writing the party platform, fighting, for example, to maintain its support for a constitutional amendment banning abortion.
"I support a human life amendment. He (McCain) does not," Huckabee said. "That's been part of our party platform since 1980, and I hope it remains part of our platform."
Huckabee's support from conservatives is partly why McCain and his allies stop short of urging him to quit. McCain is courting conservatives; elbowing Huckabee out might offend them.
"I don't pretend that I wouldn't like Governor Huckabee not in the race," McCain said Wednesday. "Of course I'd like him to withdraw today. It would make it much easier. But I respect his right to continue in this race for just as long as he wants to."
But doesn't sustaining the rivalry risk rupturing Republican ranks?
"It's not hurting the party," Appell said. "The situation between Huckabee and McCain is amicable enough, civil enough, that there's an unsaid understanding that it's OK with McCain if Huckabee stays in a little longer and pads his resume for the future."
There are benefits for McCain, too.
One is that the competition could sharpen his pitch to conservatives — though going too far might turn off the moderates and independents that McCain will need in the fall.
Another is that the competition commands media attention.
"Winning is a good thing," said McCain campaign manager Rick Davis. "Voters notice that when you write it on the front page of your newspapers and put it on your shows. They say, `Wow, John McCain's racking up these wins.' There's nothing wrong with that. If we didn't have an opponent, it probably wouldn't be on the front page of the newspapers."
How long before it distracts from the fall campaign against the Democrats?
"Governor Huckabee is good for dialogue and debate," said Jim Greer, the Republican Party chairman in Florida. "But at the end of the day, we need to get behind who is going to be our nominee, Senator McCain."
"It is soon," he said. "But I don't necessarily think it's today."