Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee – the only presidential candidate in memory to author a book of spiritually-appropriate tips for shedding extra pounds — lost the race for the Republican presidential nomination before it started.

Crushing defeats tonight in Texas and Ohio — two states where the preacher-turned-politician should have been a contender — just put the period on the sentence that was written the day he launched his campaign: “Mike Huckabee is never going to lead a national Republican ticket.”

Tuesday was John McCain’s night, with easy wins for the Arizona senator in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont. And the nomination is now his.

It was never going to be Huckabee’s.

Republicans don’t nominate former governors of small, slightly-Democratic states for president, and they certainly don’t nominate bass-playing, varmint-eatin’ populists who point out the failings of “CEO presidents” and seem actually to care more about the party faithful than its Wall Street funders.

While the Democrats have had some recent success with outsiders from the state capitals – Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992 – the last time the Grand Old Party turned to the governor from a state that might be considered off the beaten path was in 1936. They learned a bitter lesson that year, when Kansas Governor Alf Landon led an “as Maine goes, so goes Vermont” campaign that could not even secure the paltry Electoral College delegation of his home state.

So Huckabee did never fit the profile. And then he went and scared the bejeezus out of the party elites by talking about actually delivering on the GOP’s long-deferred promises to its evangelically-inclined base. On economics, the former governor owed more to Pat Buchanan’s pitchfork populism than the Bush family’s oil-profits-uber-alles “values.” And when it came to the bread-and-butter of the “values voter” message, Huckabee horrified Republican leaders by suggesting that the party really should get down to the business of banning abortions, reversing gay rights and amending the Constitution to permit something a might more theocratic.

Yet, Huckabee recognized that there were millions of Republican voters who wanted to “go there.” And he did, winning not just the Iowa caucuses but key southern and border-state primaries. What the Dallas Morning News described – in a Texas-weird endorsement of the former governor on Sunday – as “Mr. Huckabee’s sunny-side-up brand of conservatism” proved to be attractive enough to get the out-of-work politician what he needed.

He’s the last man standing except the nominee (unless you count sort-of-still-in-the-race Congressman Ron Paul, who spent recent weeks defending his Texas U.S. House seat from a Republican primary challenger).

Huckebee finished his race when he said he would – after McCain secured enough delegates to claim the party’s nod at its convention this summer in the Twin Cities – and he has done so with most of his dignity in place. (Let’s just forget about his remarkably unsuccessful cattle-roping attempt at a Texas rodeo last week.)

What does that get the Huckabeast – as he is described by Arkansans who are familiar with the dark side of the “sunny-side up” candidate?Not the vice presidency, that’s for sure.

The professional conservatives of talk radio and the Republican establishment actually hate the genuinely-populist Huckabee more than they do pseudo-maverick McCain. And the notion that the GOP establishment will balance the McCain ticket with an even looser cannon than the presidential nominee is almost as funny as Huckabee playing foosball with Stephen Colbert.

Ain’t gonna happen.

But Huckabee will put in an appearance at the convention, and the price of switching his delegates to McCain – for that first-ballot unanimity that Republican love – will be a prime-time speaking slot.

He’ll give the best speech of the four days; and even the people who never backed him will allow their minds to wander into “what if…” speculation – especially after McCain stiffly reads an acceptable speech that will sound like a 72-year-old man yelling to Obama supporters: “Hey, you kids, get off my lawn.”

Then Huckabee will campaign hard for McCain in the states the Republican nominee is going to win anyway. That swing will secure the victory the former governor was really seeking when he got into the presidential race a year ago. He will be the new president of evangelical America. That will keep him on the road, staying in 4-star hotels, penning spiritual guidebooks that will fill the “politics” shelf at Christian bookstores and perhaps prodding the GOP a bit from his new bully pulpit as the host of a cable television show.

There will be speculation about another presidential run, but it won’t go much further than did this year’s John Edwards campaign, Pat Buchanan’s 1996 campaign or Gary Hart’s 1988 campaign. Hitting the trail again never works for might-have-beens. And while the Huckabeast might find his way into the U.S. Senate someday, the truth is that he has earned himself a better gig: The religious right’s Gadfly-in-Chief.