John McCain took home a modest fourth place finish in the Iowa caucuses, garnering 13% of the Republican vote. But he may be as big a winner as Mike Huckabee. Huckabee's knockout of Mitt Romney in the caucuses was exactly what the McCain campaign, which spent little time or money in Iowa, needed from the state. McCain decided several months ago to stake his entire campaign on New Hampshire, where he is ahead of Romney (who governed next door in Massachusetts) in the most recent polls. Now that Romney has been severely wounded in Iowa, and with New Hampshire's Republicans historically cool toward Christian conservatives, McCain is suddenly poised to win big on Jan. 8 and, perhaps, beyond.
That McCain is even in the race let alone in a position to compete for the G.O.P. nomination hardly seemed possible just a few months ago, when his once front-running campaign nearly collapsed in debt and chaos. "The people who mishandled his campaign did him an enormous favor they blew up a campaign that couldn't win," says an unaffiliated Republican strategist. "They destroyed his bases and mangled his supply lines. They left him only the option of falling back on himself and his instincts to fight a guerrilla-style campaign. And that's the only way he can win."
Whether that's true is still several primaries away from being determined, but it's undeniable that McCain bombed as an establishment candidate.
In early 2007, McCain anointed by the press and the party as the G.O.P. front-runner set out to run a national campaign with a huge staff, big-name endorsements and all the expensive trappings of a well-funded, unstoppable machine. It was the complete opposite of his famously scrappy 2000 run, when he emerged from the low single digits to beat the establishment choice, George W. Bush, by 18 points in New Hampshire only to lose the fight for the nomination in the weeks thereafter. McCain had placed all his energy and scarce resources into New Hampshire in 2000 because that was all he could do. In 2008, he planned to play a bigger game.
But McCain appeared spooked by his own strategy. On the stump he was cautious, scripted, and far too focused on ingratiating himself with all the groups and special interests that, by and large, never trusted him to begin with. Behind the scenes, his campaign was torn by strategic chaos and riven by feuds between consultants charging huge fees.
By mid-July, McCain's funding had dried up and much of his staff either walked out or was let go. Many political professionals, even those close to him, assumed McCain was staying in the race merely out of pride or because he needed to raise enough money to pay off the campaign's considerable debts. His candidacy had become a textbook example of how not to run.
Mike Dennehy can pinpoint the moment he realized McCain was no longer a dead candidate walking. It was the weekend before Thanksgiving, when 100 people turned up to hear McCain speak at a coffee shop in the tiny town of Colebrook in the northern reaches of New Hampshire. "That's a lot of people in Colebrook," says Dennehy, McCain's national political director (the town's population is under 2,500). "But it didn't hit me until two hours later when we had a town hall meeting in Haverhill. There were 200 people a good crowd but most importantly, people came up to him afterward and said, 'You've got my vote.' It was the first time that had happened all year."
What turned it? Partly, McCain's refusal to give up the innate stubbornness of a man who has experienced far grimmer moments than a lost election. It helped, too, that the surge in Iraq, which McCain loudly supported, began to produce positive results, which in turn removed the war from the front pages. And McCain certainly wasn't hurt by the spitball match between Romney and Huckabee in Iowa.
But there was also an unmistakable reversion to form. Unburdened of the expectations that came with being the front-runner, McCain started enjoying himself again pushing his 71-year-old body as hard as any of his younger rivals. He gassed up the Straight Talk Express and began touring New Hampshire the way he did in 2000, holding town hall after town hall talking to, joking with and occasionally sparring with anyone who cared to show up. "He put this campaign on his back," says Mark Salter, the top aide who co-wrote all of McCain's books with the Senator. "He went out there and worked. Nobody puts on the show he puts on. He gets hard commits. Obama gets massive rallies. But McCain just wins them one guy at a time. It adds up." Says Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's campaign in 1996: "McCain has lived off the earth better than anybody."
But will 2008 just be a replay of 2000 for McCain? If he wins New Hampshire, will he have the support and the resources to keep on winning in Michigan and South Carolina, and then on to Florida and the Super Tuesday states?
As Huckabee and McCain have already shown, almost any outcome seems possible in this unusual election cycle. Huckabee could use his personal charm to expand his appeal beyond his evangelical base. Mitt Romney, with a personal fortune he's shown himself more than willing to tap, could bounce back, challenge McCain in New Hampshire and go on to wage a war of attrition for the nomination. And Rudy Giuliani could as his campaign planned long ago impose order on a chaotic primary season, win Florida and then cruise to victory in California, New York and other big states on Feb. 5.
Or maybe, after rising from near political death, John McCain will keep the surprises coming.