Sen. John McCain made a final push through Maryland and Virginia yesterday in hopes of locking up today's "Potomac Primary" - and proving that he can rally conservatives to his cause. But his biggest remaining rival, Mike Huckabee, refused to give up on the region, campaigning across Virginia while his wife stumped in Maryland.
Flanked by Republican heavyweights, including former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., at an Annapolis hotel, McCain acknowleged that it could take "a little time" for the right wing of his party to support him, despite his status as the presumptive GOP nominee.
Stoked in recent days by conservative talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, party activists have railed about various instances in which McCain broke ranks with the GOP base over the years, including votes against President Bush's tax cuts and reform measures he championed on campaign finance and illegal immigration.
"We have a lot of work to do to unite the party," he told reporters in Annapolis, saying that Republicans have become "dispirited" because of corruption and outsized spending in Washington. "We've got to re-energize our base. And also, primaries are tough."
McCain added that it took time for his supporters in 2000 to "solidly support President Bush's candidacy, but they certainly did, and I urged them to do so." He repeated his interest in meeting soon with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney - arguably McCain's most formidable rival this year - who dropped out Thursday and has yet to throw his full weight behind the Arizona senator.
Meanwhile, Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, and his wife were defiant in appearances in Maryland and Virginia, vowing to press on in the contest despite the near impossibility of erasing McCain's lead in convention delegates.
"Let's show them that the election isn't over until the people have spoken," he told backers at a hotel in Richmond.
In an interview with CNN, Huckabee resisted calls from some Republicans for him to drop out of the race. He said he won't quit "as long as my guys are still waving the pompoms."
McCain is heavily favored to win all three contests in tomorrow's primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, but he nonetheless continued to campaign in the region yesterday, dashing off to a rally at the Virginia Aviation Museum in Richmond after his stop in Annapolis.
McCain was introduced there by former Navy Secretary and now-Virginia Sen. John Warner, and his strength among military service members and veterans - who form a huge voting bloc in Republican primaries - was made plain by the crowd of several hundred.
Albert W. Seamster, 81, said he has supported McCain since the beginning of the campaign.
"He's the only one who's qualified to be president," said Seamster, who lives near Richmond. "He's got military service. He knows what to do with all this terrorism stuff. You feel safer under him."
Seeking to counter lingering skepticism from conservatives, McCain's campaign announced endorsements from major figures in the GOP yesterday, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Gary L. Bauer, a prominent evangelical leader and former 2000 GOP presidential candidate who founded the Campaign for Working Families; and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican who heads a group of more than 100 conservative Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
As he has in recent weeks, McCain continued to have kind words for Huckabee, congratulating him on victories this weekend in Kansas and Louisiana.
"We have close to 800 delegates. Last time I checked, Governor Huckabee had very few, so I think I'm happy with the situation I'm in," McCain said. "I'm quite pleased."
Huckabee appears to be pinning his hopes on Virginia, as he has fared well in many Southern states so far. But his wife, Janet, began campaigning throughout Maryland yesterday, beginning with a "coffee and shoot" at the North American Rod and Gun Club in Hagerstown.
At a later stop at the Java Grande on U.S. 40 in Howard County, Janet Huckabee talked about her aversion to early rising, her nearly 34-year marriage, and how she and her husband have known each other since becoming classmates in seventh grade.
Bob Pyle, 51, of Ellicott City, a self-proclaimed Huckabee fan, asked the key question for the former governor's campaign: "What are the chances of getting the nomination at this point?"
"People don't need talking heads and others telling them how to vote," Janet Huckabee replied.
On her fourth campaign stop of the day, in Annapolis, Janet Huckabee remained tirelessly upbeat about her husband's prospects while meeting with about 60 people jammed into a room at the Governor Calvert House inn on State Circle.
Huckabee's victories over the weekend had re-energized the campaign, she said. Supporters have "come out of the woodwork," she said, lighting up the Web site "like the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Square" and bringing in a new infusion of money. One supporter in the crowd told her he wants Huckabee to stay in, no matter what. "I believe in miracles and something's got to happen," he said.
"I do, too," she said, and urged him to get on the phone and call his friends, "because you've got a lot of miracle-working to do."
Sun reporters Larry Carson, Timothy B. Wheeler and Josh Mitchell, and the Associated Press contributed to this article.