A Dramatic Second Act for the Senator From Arizona

The Washington Post's Dan Balz talks about the New Hampshire primary and the story of two comebacks. Video by Chet Rhodes/washingtonpost.com
By Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The architects of John McCain's 2008 campaign set out last year to avoid exactly where the Arizona Republican found himself last night: an insurgent emerging victoriously from New Hampshire with little money, little national presence and only the hope that momentum would take him to the White House.

Having tried that already in his unsuccessful 2000 race, McCain's effort to assemble a gold-plated operation collapsed in the summer, forcing him to adopt his old insurgent pose and once again reinvent his campaign on the fly. "Tomorrow, we begin again," McCain told cheering supporters last night.

Now even his supporters are wondering whether he can take his adrenaline-fueled campaign national, a transformation he could not make eight years ago.

"That's the open question," said Terry Nelson, who resigned as McCain's campaign manager in July as his once-formidable campaign structure imploded. "I think John McCain today is the front-runner for the nomination, but his status is going to have to be reconfirmed in places like Michigan and South Carolina, and he's going to face his own hurdles in doing that. He's not the George Bush of 2000. He just doesn't have that kind of campaign."

"There's still a need for a larger overarching strategy to win the nomination," another former McCain aide added.

Campaign aides and supporters say there are some fundamental differences between the two McCain bids. He has better organizations in the next two Republican primary states -- South Carolina and Michigan -- than he previously did. He's now polling better among Republican voters and maintaining his support among independents who fueled his old bid. And perhaps most important, he does not face a titanic, establishment campaign like George W. Bush's in 2000.

"The dynamics are so different this time; there's no alternative like George W. out there," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a McCain supporter.

Still, the shoestring campaign emerging from New Hampshire is a far cry from what McCain had once wanted.

"I remember when we won Michigan [in 2000], McCain turned to me and said, 'How did we do that?' And I said I don't have [an] idea," recalled John Weaver, McCain's former political strategist and a casualty of the July shake-up. "This year, we didn't want that to happen. We wanted to know where we were going."

With an initial goal of $100 million for 2007, McCain instead had barely raised a quarter of that by midyear. His campaign had opened offices in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Michigan. A staff was hired in Florida, and operations were running in seven other states, Nelson recalled.

But without the money to maintain it, McCain had no choice but to dismantle his national operation. In mid-summer, remaining campaign aides hoped New Hampshire would at the least give the maverick Republican one more bus ride with a few reporters and a chance to reminisce. Maybe, they thought, he could make a difference in the outcome with a last-minute endorsement before a graceful exit.

In their brightest scenario, the two well-funded candidates remaining in the race, Romney and Giuliani, would blow their money fighting each other. Voters might give McCain another look. Never did they dream Mike Huckabee would rise from nowhere to cripple Romney in Iowa while Giuliani sat on the sidelines, waiting for later contests and bleeding support.

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