How McCain Could Win

They say that déjà vu is just a trick of the mind, but I felt otherwise when I got aboard John McCain's "Straight Talk Express" this week. Here was McCain the underdog surrounded once more by seven or eight reporters, answering dozens of questions at length as we rolled through the New Hampshire countryside. Up front, his longtime aide Mark Salter sketched out a plausible scenario for McCain to win here on Jan. 8. Even the messy interior of the RV and the day-old Krispy Kreme donuts smelled the same.

The candidate is 71, "old as dirt," as he likes to say, and shows it, especially in his hands, which still bear the imprint of his five and a half years of captivity in Hanoi, and in his face, where he suffered a bout with skin cancer several years ago. But he's thinner, more disciplined; that coiled energy and sharp mind dispel any idea that he should be disqualified for reasons of age. The spirit and good humor that made him so popular eight years ago up here remain intact, even if the jokes are a little stale. Whatever one thinks of his politics, it's hard not to have a good time with John McCain.

The meltdown of McCain's bloated and pandering campaign last winter was probably a blessing. If he were still the front runner he'd be a sitting duck. Instead he's preparing for a possible sequel to a legendary insurgent campaign in 2000 that for reporters like me was the most fun we ever had in politics.

I don't want to get carried away here, but stranger things have happened than for McCain to be the Republican nominee. If polls are any indication (and they usually aren't), Mike Huckabee will beat Mitt Romney in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. But Huckabee's gospel style has little appeal in flinty New Hampshire, and Rudy Giuliani has inexplicably pulled his ads. That would leave McCain a clean shot at a wounded Romney.

In a new Rasmussen poll in the Granite State, McCain has already surged to within four points of Romney, who as the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts has been on the air here for five years. Once again independents gravitate to McCain. Should he even finish a close second, he'll beat the expectations spread, though he arguably needs to win in order to get the money necessary to stagger to the next primary.

That's Jan. 15 in Michigan, which McCain won in 2000 but is often discounted because it's Romney's true home state. Then comes the showdown in South Carolina. In 2000 McCain surged into the lead after his big New Hampshire upset before George W. Bush brought him down in the Palmetto State. But this time McCain wouldn't be facing the consensus choice of the GOP establishment there. He'd be up against Huckabee, who will be strong with South Carolina evangelicals but vulnerable with everyone else.

Should McCain win South Carolina, it's on to Florida, which is supposed to be Rudy Giuliani's best state but wouldn't be any kind of firewall against McCain by that point (Giuliani's already slipping in polls even there). By Super Tuesday, McCain's lack of big TV money won't be so significant, because no one else will be able to make saturation ad buys in 20 states either. Given his views on campaign finance reform, it would be fitting if his campaign were the one to prove that money isn't everything it's cracked up to be in presidential politics.

McCain wouldn't even be in the race now if not for Gen. David Petraeus. He bet everything on the surge working (at least as perceived by Republicans)—and won. While he's out of step with his party on this year's hot GOP issue, immigration, it's not as if any other plausible candidate is in step. Romney employed illegals at his mansion, Giuliani ran a "sanctuary city" that protected them, Huckabee gave their children college scholarships, and Fred Thompson doesn't have the mojo to even make this point.

But the bigger reason for McCain's improved prospects is that he's increasingly emerging as the adult in the "daddy party." On Wednesday he was joined by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger (who endorsed him, breaking his tradition of not backing a candidate in the primaries) and by former CIA director James Woolsey. You could argue that guys like that got the country into a lot of trouble. But to GOP primary voters they convey gravitas.

Republicans traditionally give their nomination to the heavyweight establishment candidate. Until recently that was Romney or Thompson, who has turned out to be the dud of the race. McCain was the maverick, widely despised in the Washington Republican establishment for his frequent jabs at Bush and departure from party orthodoxy. But fealty to Bush doesn't matter so much anymore. It's hard to imagine that Romney won many votes for going on "Meet the Press" to defend the president's honor against attacks by Huckabee, who accused Bush of a "bunker mentality" on Iraq.

On the bus, McCain was careful to avoid endorsing Huckabee's view. He's still as open to reporters as he was eight years ago—a welcome relief from the way other campaigns are managed—but the man doesn't run his mouth as freely as he once did. He acknowledged the "failure" of Bush's execution of the war without making any news that could be used against him.

I continue to find a problem at the core of McCain's message. For obvious political reasons, he now favors making permanent the Bush tax cuts he once opposed on principle, which means he's just as irresponsible as the other Republicans in passing down the costs of the war to the next generation. (This is the first war in American history unaccompanied by a tax increase.)

When I reminded him that the $233 million Alaska "Bridge to Nowhere" that he rightly gets so angry about is the equivalent of only a few hours in Iraq, he quickly pivoted: "Failure is always expensive. Would I like to do it over again? Yes. Would I have handled it differently? Absolutely." But even had he managed the occupation right, with a much bigger footprint of troops, the Iraq War would still have been hugely expensive, and ending earmarks and other "wasteful spending" wouldn't have come close to paying for it.

But you have to give John McCain this: he's not an android flip-flopper, a creepy fear-monger or a jokey preacher who once compared homosexuality to necrophilia. For Republicans his comeback would represent real progress.