John McCain still refuses to use the F-word—front runner, that is. Boarding his campaign plane early Wednesday, the morning after his big win in Florida, the Arizona senator waved off reporters who asked if he was finally comfortable thinking of himself as the man to beat for the Republican presidential nomination. "I'm trying not to think that way," McCain said. "You know me, I'm way too superstitious for that … We've still got a long way to go."
McCain has good reason to be wary. Twelve months ago the Arizona senator entered the presidential race as the heir apparent to George W. Bush, a candidate with loads of cash, a boatload of big-name endorsements, and some of the best consultants in the business. But the bottom dropped out. In spite of efforts to make nice with key evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, McCain never quite won the trust of social conservatives—who view him as too squishy—or of the party's establishment, which viewed his combative relationship with the president and other Republicans as nothing short of a betrayal. He championed policies like immigration reform, which put him at odds with the GOP base, and the surge in Iraq, which hurt him with independents—the voting bloc that proved so pivotal in his 2000 campaign.
By the summer the buzz was gone. McCain was out of money and had lost more than half of his staff—including longtime friend and adviser John Weaver—and was written off by most of the Beltway chattering class. "It's effectively over," election expert Charlie Cook declared in July. "The physicians have left the hospital room, and it's the executor of the estate that's taking over."
But McCain didn't go away. The Arizona senator, who told NEWSWEEK over the summer that he was "never quite comfortable being the front runner, per se," ditched his fancy Straight Talk Express bus but stayed on the road. He bet his campaign on New Hampshire, closing offices and laying off staffers in other pivotal states, like South Carolina and Florida, to cut costs.
He lost one key supporter, former senator Fred Thompson, who had co-chaired McCain's 2000 campaign and was making calls on his behalf before deciding to run on his own. And other candidates shifted into the spotlight, most notably Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee. Yet there remained no clear front runner. With the race for the nomination in flux, McCain worked the phones urging allies, like Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, not to count him out. "We're going to win this thing," he told Crist in early November. That assurance kept Crist from endorsing Giuliani—a move that may well have been pivotal in determining the results in Florida Tuesday night.
As McCain heads toward Super Tuesday, an epochal day on which more than 20 states will cast their ballots for president, it's almost as if 2007 never happened. The campaign is back where it started: with McCain as the man with the momentum, squaring off against Romney, a challenger who is willing to spend whatever it takes to win.
But that doesn't mean McCain's challenges have magically disappeared. He still has a sour relationship with many influential conservatives, who remain determined to derail his campaign. Later this week, NEWSWEEK has learned, McCain will be on the cover of the widely read conservative magazine Human Events, in a story focusing on the senator's combative relationship with his party over the years.
"For the first time in the race, we have an undisputed front runner, for now," says Greg Mueller, a Washington-based Republican consultant who is not aligned with any of the campaigns. "The establishment is slowly adopting him, (but) he still needs to build a stronger bridge to conservatives."
The results in Florida are an important start. While his earlier wins owed much to support from independents and crossover voters, the Sunshine State's primary allowed only registered Republicans. McCain and his aides say the convincing win here shows that whatever problems he might have with the GOP base can't be that bad. Aides credited the win to McCain's record on national security and fiscal restraint and, perhaps above everything else, the ability to win against a Democrat in November. While Romney campaigned as the man who could help turn around the economy, a slight majority of Florida voters who named that issue as most important to them went for McCain.
To do well on Super Tuesday, McCain will have retain the enthusiasm he has always enjoyed among independents and moderates, while showing conservatives he can be trusted as their nominee. He'll also have to win in what is the equivalent of a national campaign. With so many states up for grabs on Tuesday, the senator will have little time to devote to the kind of retail politicking upon which he thrives. "I'd rather just get in a bus and hit a bunch of town halls … I think that's more effective than just having some rally where you say the same speech every time. It's good to mix it up with people, even if someone stands up and argues with you," McCain told reporters earlier this week. "But they won't let me. I think they are afraid I'm going to say the wrong thing."
Money is also a question mark. Romney has indicated that he will continue to spend heavily from his personal fortune. McCain ended the year with less than $10 million in the bank. After wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the senator has spent nearly as much time raising money as campaigning—he has raised more than $7 million since the beginning of the year. But aides acknowledge they likely still won't be able to keep up with Romney financially. "It's going to be a race that takes place all over the TV," says Steve Schmidt, a senior McCain adviser.
For now, McCain and his aides are focused on the most immediate hurdle: Wednesday night's GOP debate at the Reagan Library outside Los Angeles. On the plane ride to California, McCain and his advisers huddled in full view of a press corps that photographed and took note of every little tic, looking for clues as to the mind-set of the candidate and his campaign.
At one point McCain looked up, noticing the cameras documenting his every move. He threw his hands in the air and jokingly gave look of mock fear. Asked if he thought the debate might get nasty tonight, he refused to say. "I will predict, I think we might set a record on how many times we mention Ronald Reagan tonight," he joked. "I know I will be trying for it."