Huckabee still a creationist thorn in McCain's side

John McCain is on the verge of becoming the Republican presidential nominee, but socially conservative voters in the party have given him a sharp reminder of how intensely they distrust him.

Even an endorsement by George Bush in a Fox News interview on Sunday seemed half-hearted. It came with a warning that "if John is the nominee, he has got some convincing to do to convince people that he is a solid conservative".

Mr Bush promised to help during the campaign. But that too could prove a liability in the presidential election, given the President's rock-bottom approval ratings. Only 38 per cent of voters have any faith in the President's performance, but he can comfort himself that 72 per cent of Republicans at least somewhat approve of his performance.

Mr McCain, who brought his campaign to Maryland yesterday for today's primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, already has enough delegates to virtually guarantee the nomination. But a weekend of embarrassing defeats by his social conservative rival Mike Huckabee in Louisiana and Kansas and a razor-thin victory in Washington state, reveal deep unease in the party about his candidacy. Mr Huckabee challenged the results in Washington state, saying he wanted to explore all available legal options after "dubious final results".

Mr Huckabee's charm and homespun wisdom has endeared him to the Republican rank and file. He never disparages Mr McCain, and enthusiastic volunteers rather than paid staff run his campaign. Although he has no hope of winning he intends to stay in the race to keep pressure on Mr McCain to embrace a more socially conservative agenda.

For all the grassroots enthusiasm to put a creationist in the White House, Mr Huckabee is not loved by the party's high command. His efforts to be named as Mr McCain's choice for the vice-presidential slot have been firmly rebuffed. His weak grasp of foreign policy, his much-derided plans to scrap the Internal Revenue Service and his extreme positions on social issues in effect rule him out.