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John McCain isn’t any good at being a front-runner, but the mainstream GOP may—finally—need him.

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Illustration by Darrow  

John McCain’s media guru, Mark McKinnon, was wearing a shit-eating grin when I ran into him in a parking lot in Salem, New Hampshire, two days before that state’s primary, amid a heaving throng of cameradudes angling to get some B-roll of his boss. Back in July, when McCain’s campaign was imploding, I had snarked in this space that to envision the senator’s winning the Republican nomination required ingesting “half a bottle of Maker’s Mark, followed by a nitrous-oxide chaser.” So it wasn’t surprising that the first thing out of McKinnon’s mouth was an offer of a good, stiff bourbon. (Regarding the nitrous, apparently, I was on my own.) Sheepishly, pitifully, I muttered a mea culpa. “That’s okay,” McKinnon replied. “You ain’t the only one who got it wrong.”

Forty-eight hours later, the voters of New Hampshire validated McKinnon’s optimism, turning McCain into his party’s de facto front-runner: the Phoenix from Phoenix. Indeed, among Republican politicos, the view is that McCain is now sitting prettier than most people realize. That with a victory in either of the next two primaries—in Michigan on January 15 or South Carolina four days later—he will assume a commanding position in the race. That the GOP Establishment will rapidly close ranks behind him, putting him on an unobstructed glide path to the nomination.

Trust me when I tell you that I’ve learned my lesson when it comes to underestimating McCain. And, no doubt, the above scenario is entirely plausible. But it also strikes me as underestimating a number of salient factors: the strength of Mike Huckabee’s populist appeal in a pair of states where economic issues are likely to loom large; the discomfort that McCain has always exhibited when running ahead of the pack; the possibility that, despite appearances, Rudy Giuliani isn’t dead and buried yet. And it assumes the fractured GOP electorate is capable of acting pragmatically in its own best interests—an assumption for which this election cycle has provided little evidence.

The McCain resurrection in New Hampshire was, no question, a remarkable thing to behold. Six months ago, the extent of his meltdown was so severe that he was mired in fourth place in the state behind Mitt Romney, Giuliani, and, yes, even Fred Thompson. But by December, McCain, back to waging a guerrilla campaign, had scrapped his way into the lead. In the days before the primary, the sense of nostalgia was palpable: the Straight Talk Express crisscrossing the snow-banked byways, McCain cracking wise and holding forth, the hack pack huddled around him, lapping up every word. His town-hall meetings were jammed to the rafters, his wit, spontaneity, and candor on vivid display. “You’re still in purgatory,” said one independent voter, who questioned McCain’s devotion to fiscal discipline. “Thank you,” replied McCain. “That’s a step up from where I was last summer.”

A Giuliani victory in Florida would keep the Republican race alive until Super-Duper Tuesday.

McCain is openly superstitious: In New Hampshire, he carried with him his lucky penny and lucky compass, and not only stayed in the same room in the same hotel as he did in 2000, but slept on the same side of the bed. And his triumph in New Hampshire owed much to a series of unexpected and fortuitous developments. The apparent, however limited, success of Bush’s troop surge in Iraq, which McCain loudly supported. The crippling downfall of Romney in Iowa at the hands of Huckabee. Even the rise of Barack Obama, whose widening lead in the pre-primary opinion polls may have caused some independents to swing to McCain, on the theory that their votes would be more consequential in the Republican contest.

McCain seems poised to benefit from good fortune again in Michigan. Because the state moved up the date of its primary in defiance of the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Obama will not be competing there, giving independents and conservative Democrats every incentive to take part in the Republican primary. In 2000, these two voting blocs made up an astonishing 60 percent of the total turnout in the GOP race in Michigan—and propelled McCain’s defeat of Bush there. If something similar happens again, McCain will be on a roll, and, the argument goes, scores of party regulars will rush to his side.

The concept of McCain as the candidate of the Republican Establishment may cause some minds to reel, but there are already signs that it may become a reality: On the eve of New Hampshire, 100 alumni of the Reagan administration—including George Shultz, Alexander Haig, and Iran/contra pardonee Robert McFarlane—trumpeted their endorsement of McCain. What makes him attractive to such people despite his transgressions against Republican orthodoxy is crystal clear. As McCain spokesman Steve Schmidt put it bluntly in New Hampshire, “He is the most electable of all Republicans.” Though one Democratic strategist licked his chops when I mentioned the prospect of a McCain-Obama matchup—“It would be the future versus the past, change versus more of the same”—the septuagenarian senator would compete fiercely with his younger rival for independent voters, and would be able to play far more effectively the experience card that Clinton has employed against him. And having been carpet-bombed by Bush in 2000 and Romney this time around, he’d be well prepared to handle the brass-knuckle brawl into which a race against Clinton would surely turn.


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