WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney's pullout from the presidential race have many curious if the party's right wing will coalesce behind Mike Huckabee, who touts himself as the "authentic conservative" in what he calls a now two-man race for the GOP nomination.
Nearly immediately after Romney's withdrawal, Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family released a statement announcing his endorsement, as an individual, of Huckabee.
"I am endorsing Gov. Mike Huckabee for President of the United States today," the influential, evangelical leader declared Thursday night. "My decision comes in the wake of my statement on Super Tuesday that I could not vote for Sen. John McCain, even if he goes on to win the Republican nomination."
Dobson had lamented that McCain appeared close to winning the Republican nomination after his big wins in the Super Tuesday contests. He lambasted the Arizona senator for what he deemed as anti-family and anti-conservative stances.
Among the long list of criticisms of McCain by Dobson are his lack of support for a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as one man and one woman; his support for embryonic stem-cell which Dobson likened to murder; and his "legendary temper" and frequent use of "foul and obscene language."
"I cannot, and will not, vote for Sen. John McCain, as a matter of conscience," Dobson said after results from Super Tuesday contests showed McCain pulling way ahead of his more conservative Republican opponents.
That left Romney and Huckabee as viable candidates for the support of the pro-family leader. But after Romney's "suspension" of his campaign Thursday afternoon, Huckabee was the only "remaining candidate" that Dobson said he could vote for.
"Obviously, the governor faces an uphill struggle, given the delegates already committed to Sen. McCain," Dobson acknowledged. "Nevertheless, I believe he is our best remaining choice for President of the United States."
This is the first time Dobson – known to be careful and hard-to-get in his endorsement – has publicly supported a candidate this early in the race, during primary season, according to The Associated Press.
But Huckabee, who's running 533 delegates behind McCain, does not have the luxury to bask in Dobson's endorsement. On Thursday, the former Arkansas governor immediately appealed to Romney voters for their support.
"As a true authentic, consistent, conservative, I have a vision to bring hope, opportunity and prosperity to all Americans, and I'd like to ask for and welcome the support of those who had previously been committed to Mitt," Huckabee said in a statement.
"This is a two-man race for the nomination, and I am committed to marching on. I believe in the importance of a strong national defense – which includes winning the war against Islamic extremists and the protection of American sovereignty," he said.
Meanwhile, McCain is also trying to grab Romney's conservative voters and invite them to join his base.
On Thursday, just hours after Romney's announcement, the "maverick" senator sought to allay fears that he was too liberal to be the GOP nominee. McCain pledged to support key conservative agendas and boldly extended his hand of friendship to the nation's largest gathering of conservative activists, students and policymakers.
"My record in public office taken as a whole is the record of a mainstream conservative," said McCain at the Conservative Political Action Conference, according to CNN.
"All I ask of any American, conservative, moderate, independent, or enlightened Democrat, is to judge my record as a whole, and accept that I am not in the habit of making promises to my country that I do not intend to keep," he said.
McCain, although having a wide lead in the Republican race, still needs to worry about winning the support of conservatives in his party – if he is to be the nominee – before the general election in order to overcome the Democratic nominee.
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who was at the conference, noted, "The room was not overwhelmingly warm to him (McCain)," according to Fox News.
"We'll see if McCain really wants to build a relationship with the conservative movement," said DeLay. "It's really incumbent on the next nominee, if it is McCain, to reach out to conservatives. He cannot rely just on some Democrats and independents…he has got to have a base."
A Republican candidate needs 1,191 delegates to win the nomination. McCain has 714 delegates, Huckabee has 181 and Ron Paul has 16.
On Saturday, Louisiana and Kansas Republicans will hold a primary and caucuses, respectively. Next Tuesday, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia voters will head to the polls for the "Potomac primaries."