McCain's Momentum

A funny thing happened on the way to New Hampshire. John McCain got his mojo back. Meeting with reporters in his campaign headquarters, McCain, back from Iraq and on his way to South Carolina, held forth on a variety of subjects in the easy, straight-talking way that earned him a special place in political journalists' hearts in 2000, and that still sets him apart from almost every other leading contender for the presidency on either side.

He had just come from taping the Charlie Rose show, an hour's exploration of his inner feelings, he said, and he seemed eager to get to Iraq and the gains made by the buildup of U.S. troops. "John Edwards used to call it the McCain surge. He doesn't anymore. I wish he would," McCain said. With roughly half of Americans now saying the war in Iraq is going well, according to a Pew Research Center poll, McCain hopes his firmness in sticking with the war will translate into a first- or second-place finish in New Hampshire.

It's a long shot for a candidate who during the summer had to shed much of his staff and is operating on a tight budget, but McCain seems comfortable and on his game. The Republican race is so fluid that almost anything can happen. And for an electorate searching for authenticity, the new McCain is the old McCain, the candidate we saw eight years ago who speaks his mind and whose personal story brings a moral dimension unmatched by his rivals. The questions now are whether Republicans will see McCain as their most electable nominee and whether the independent voters that launched him in 2000 will return to him in New Hampshire. "His destiny is out of his hands," says Matthew Dowd, who was George W. Bush's pollster in 2000 and 2004 and is now unaffiliated with any candidate or party.

For McCain to make a comeback, several things have to fall in place. Mike Huckabee has to win Iowa or do damage to Mitt Romney. The two current GOP front runners, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, have to continue the demolition derby they kicked off in Wednesday evening's YouTube debate on CNN, jabbing each other about who's tougher on immigration and crime. The hint of scandal around Giuliani has to grow. That would leave the voters faced with Huckabee, who raised taxes in Arkansas to build roads (heresy for conservatives); a lethargic Fred Thompson, who can't seem to stir himself for the big fight, or McCain, a credible commander in chief who's always been pro-life. McCain could be the last man standing.

Reminded by a reporter at Monday's "sandwiches and scoops" session that Thompson had made fund-raising calls for him before entering the race, McCain quipped, "I'd like to see those phone lists." McCain is not coy about what he has to do. He has to win in New Hampshire, or come close enough to claim the "Comeback Kid" mantle that Bill Clinton rode to victory after finishing second in 1992. He also has a stake in how the Democratic race shakes out. If the Democratic contest seems settled by the Iowa returns, McCain would benefit because independents, fully a third of the New Hampshire electorate, generally flock to the party where the action is. In other words, if Hillary Clinton, the front runner nationally and in New Hampshire, wins Iowa, she will look like a foregone conclusion, and independents won't want to waste their vote on a race that's already over.

Voters in New Hampshire don't have to declare party allegiance until Election Day, and if the independents decide to play on the Republican side, McCain could be the beneficiary. Here's an example of how powerful this dynamic is: if it hadn't been for the excitement around McCain in 2000, Bill Bradley would have beaten Al Gore in New Hampshire, and perhaps snatched the nomination. "A Clinton victory in Iowa would be the best thing that could possibly happen to John McCain," says Bill Galston, a former domestic-policy adviser in the Clinton White House who is now with the Brookings Institution. "And if that doesn't happen, [second best would be] an Edwards victory, because Edwards is not going to be much of a player in New Hampshire. An Obama victory would be trouble for Hillary—but a disaster for McCain."

McCain is finally running the campaign he should have from the start. Will it be enough? It may. The history of presidential primary politics is littered with surprises: failed front runners, and dead-in-the-water winners.

McCain's Momentum | U.S.