For McCain, Now the Hard Part

John McCain is a man who looks for good omens. A few days ago, the Arizona senator was on his way to a town hall in New Hampshire when he spotted something shiny in the street outside his bus. Bending over to take a closer look, he noticed it was a nickel--but not just any nickel. It was a nickel with its head up. Notoriously superstitious since his days as a Navy pilot, McCain quickly picked it up and stuffed it in his pocket. "I need any luck I can get," McCain said, showing off the coin to a group of reporters earlier this week.

But that wasn't the only bit of superstition McCain observed heading into Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. Along with the nickel, McCain carried his lucky compass and a lucky penny. (His lucky feather and his lucky rabbit's foot are back in Arizona--or so he tells his staff.) On Monday, McCain's wife, Cindy, wore purple--her lucky color. And the couple has been staying in the same room in the same hotel they stayed in when McCain won the state's primary back in 2000. In the room, he slept on the same side of the bed as he did eight years ago.

To his nervous dismay, McCain missed out on one Election Day ritual he has been heeding since he was elected to Congress more than 20 years ago: It is McCain's tradition to go to the movies on the afternoon before the votes are counted. McCain was supposed to do it on Tuesday, but his schedule was too tight, aides say. Privately, McCain worried. Was it enough to throw off his karma? But then an aide reminded him: Back in 2000, he missed a movie on Election Day because he fell asleep. Was it a sign?

Whatever it was on Tuesday--luck, fate or just being in the right place at the right time--McCain wound up on top in New Hampshire, giving his once-struggling presidential bid a very important push into the all-important states of Michigan and South Carolina. But now comes the hard part.

While McCain will no doubt get a major boost from his win in the Granite State, his aides admit the Arizona senator has a lot of ground to make up in not very much time. His campaign's collapse last summer emptied McCain's bank account and cut short his efforts to mount strong organizations in states leading up to the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday votes. But his campaign did make one smart decision: While McCain strongly considered it, his campaign has so far not taken public funds, which would limit the amount of money he can spend in upcoming states. Late December was a good fund-raising period for McCain, and now aides plan to go back to donors and ask for more support now that it appears there is wind to McCain's back.

One thing is for sure: Donors likely will be willing to help. While McCain is not popular with the party establishment--among other things, they still haven't forgiven him for his stance on immigration and his willingness to lock horns with fellow Republicans, like President Bush--many in the party are just as displeased with other Republicans in the race. According to an exit poll of New Hampshire voters by the Associated Press, one in 10 Republicans who voted Tuesday told the survey they weren't happy with their choice of candidate.

But McCain's biggest problem likely won't be his rivals. Heading into South Carolina, McCain faces déjà vu: a primary dominated by attacks waged by largely unknown and mostly untraceable outside groups. There is one distinct difference for McCain heading into the Palmetto State: A number of Bush advisers from 2000 (including ad guru Mark McKinnon) are now on Team McCain. "We are ready," Steve Schmidt, a McCain senior strategist and former Bush/Cheney advisor, tells NEWSWEEK. "We are ready to fight back whatever they throw at us." Indeed, on Tuesday, McCain's campaign announced it had formed a "truth squad" to respond to attacks in the Palmetto State.

Yet outside attacks may be the least of McCain's issues. With a second chance at gaining the nomination, the senator needs to make a convincing argument to his party that he's the man for them--or at least a more likely contender than his rivals when it comes to beating whoever the Democratic nominee may be. McCain's unwavering stance on the Iraq war has bought some goodwill with voters on the right--and seems to have proved crucial to his victory in New Hampshire. Now he'll need to talk more about his efforts on fiscal responsibility, among other things, to build on his momentum. For McCain, that might take more than just a lucky nickel to accomplish.