At this moment in the 2008 campaign, the two were sworn enemies, dueling in a nasty New Hampshire primary contest. On Wednesday, they found political communion on a stage in the Granite State. It is what happens to politicians.
Their appearance together was one more attempt by the Romney forces to say to a Republican electorate still hesitant to wrap its arms around the former Massachusetts governor: Victory is inevitable, so climb aboard.
Maybe that will be the case; the voters will decide. Little has been certain in the Republican race. Romney’s team has been preparing for a long struggle, if necessary, but Tuesday’s eight-vote victory over former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) in the Iowa caucuses accelerates the timetable.
Four years ago, after his win in Iowa, Mike Huckabee handed to McCain, who was waiting in New Hampshire, the responsibility of blocking Romney’s path to the Republican nomination. The former Arkansas governor offered an exhortation that has been etched into the political history books. “Now it’s your turn to kick his butt,” he told McCain, according to an aide who overheard the phone call on caucus night.
The senator from Arizona obliged, dealing Romney a defeat days later that shattered his hopes of becoming the Republican nominee. But today Romney is in a position to do what no non-incumbent GOP presidential candidate in the modern era has done — win both Iowa and New Hampshire. And so on Wednesday, McCain gave Romney a pat on the back rather than a kick in the rear.
McCain, who had his first and last town hall meetings in New Hampshire in Peterborough, got a standing ovation when Romney introduced him here at their second event of the day. He cracked some of his trademark jokes, which New Hampshire audiences have heard scores of times. He joined Romney in answering questions from the crowd. He teased the candidate about his eight-vote victory in Iowa, calling him “Landslide Romney.”
McCain also implored the audience to use Tuesday’s primary to send Romney to South Carolina “with such momentum that he can’t be stopped.” Later he returned to that message, saying it is important to get to South Carolina with “a wind at our backs. Get this over with. Get the real contest going.”
For Romney, the McCain endorsement represents one more blessing from party elders and elected officials. He has been accumulating endorsements at a steady clip, carefully rolling them out for maximum impact. In New Hampshire, Romney already had the support of Sen. Kelly Ayotte, former governor John Sununu, former senator Judd Gregg, and a score of other elected officials.
But McCain is different. Few Republicans from outside the state enjoy more acclaim here than the senator. He won the Republican primary in both 2000 and 2008 and became a virtual resident of the state as his Straight Talk Express bus rolled from legion hall to high school gymnasium to local diner. Not for nothing is he sometimes called the president of New Hampshire.