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A Dramatic Second Act for the Senator From Arizona

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.

McCain also got several boosts from risky policy stances. His strong support for President Bush's troop increases in Iraq turned from a crippling liability to an asset when the "surge" worked to bring down violence -- and remove daily carnage from the front pages.

McCain's support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants -- while still a liability among many Republicans -- has lost some of its sting since the issue peaked in June, when immigration reform failed in the Senate.

"Even Lou Dobbs's throat got sore screaming for so long," Weaver said.

Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), a McCain backer, said that part of the senator's rebound came from the candidate's newfound emphasis on securing the borders before considering citizenship. "John has softened his stance on immigration. He's clearly moderated his record, I think John got the message," said Shadegg, who personally lobbied McCain against citizenship.

Exit polling from New Hampshire showed that McCain made inroads among conservatives, who eight years ago flocked to Bush while independents powered his insurgent campaign. Yesterday, McCain held a small edge among Republican voters over his challengers and nearly matched Huckabee among evangelical conservatives.

But even so, supporters say yesterday's victory could not have happened without the dogged persistence of the candidate himself.

Former senator Phil Gramm, McCain's national campaign chairman, recalled "extraordinarily small" crowds at the start of McCain's mid-September "No Surrender" tour, a re-launch of the campaign using the military theme trumpeting his approach both to Iraq and his campaign. Gramm said it should have been a humiliating moment that would have chased most candidates from the race.

"If you go back and look at McCain in this dark period, he performed. He did his job. It wasn't pitiful. It wasn't pathetic. It was courageous," Gramm said.

In an interview with Washington Post reporters, McCain said he knew he had to go back again and again to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and, to a lesser extent, Iowa, using the town hall format he employed in 2000 to regenerate voter enthusiasm. That wouldn't work until after Labor Day, when voters would begin to tune in. But, McCain said, it began to click after a strong performance in a September debate in New Hampshire that went almost unnoticed.

Thune put the pivotal moment much later, at an Oct. 21 debate in Orlando, when McCain received rapturous applause for his comical attack on New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's effort to obtain federal funding for a museum commemorating the 1969 Woodstock rock festival.

"I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event," he quipped that night. "I was tied up at the time," he continued, bringing the crowd to its feet with a sly reminder of his days as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

McCain supporters hope yesterday's victory will yield a trove of financial support that can help him rapidly rebuild his national operation. And many paid staffers who lost their jobs last summer remain as volunteers, scattered around the country, nursing a few grudges but ready to go back to work.

"They can't wait to fix their bayonets," Weaver said. "Could you ever get everyone to go on a cruise together? No. Are we all rooting for John? Absolutely."

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