Mike Murphy was at a lavish hotel in Phoenix on the morning of the Michigan primary when his cell phone rang with news that could threaten John McCain's struggling presidential candidacy.

As McCain's senior strategist and political consigliere, Murphy had pressed for a massive wave of phone calls to Michigan voters that linked George W. Bush to the anti-Catholic bigotry of Bob Jones University. Now Ron Fournier, the Associated Press's chief political writer, was calling to say a campaign source had told him of the calls but that McCain's press secretary--whom Murphy had deliberately kept in the dark--was denying their existence.

Murphy quickly calculated his options. He could deny the calls--despite the fact that he had written the script himself. He could confirm the calls and watch a breathless wire story dominate the news in the primary's final hours. Or he could stall for time. Murphy told Fournier he needed to check out the facts, which delayed the damaging story until the polls were nearly closed and left the reporter fuming.

It was a moment of less than straight talk that seemed to capture the inherent tensions between the inspiring rhetoric that propelled McCain's campaign further than anyone had imagined and the hardball tactics needed to win elections. In fact, the fallout over the calls tarnished the very qualities of candor and integrity that had given McCain his extraordinary appeal beyond the confines of the Republican Party.

There is no better way to view the campaign's contradictions and craziness than through the eyes of Murphy, the voluble operative always at McCain's side. In two dozen interviews over the past six months, Murphy provided an unvarnished account of life on the McCain roller coaster on the condition that nothing be published until after the race was over. His experience makes clear that the strengths of the Arizona senator's candidacy--his rhetorical brashness and reckless accessibility and heated attacks on his own party--were also the liabilities that would doom his insurgent effort.

While McCain was the public persona of this against-the-odds crusade, Murphy was in some ways its emotional heart. The former Navy pilot and the long-haired political consultant shared a deep rebellious streak and a subversive sense of humor. They discarded the market-tested, focus-grouped model of modern campaigning for one powered by personality and gut decisions.

Given little more to stop the Bush juggernaut than a charismatic candidate, a comfortable bus and a talent for working the media, Murphy kept driving the jerry-built contraption until the wheels came off. He was everywhere, mapping strategy, developing ads, polishing speeches, coaching the candidate and always, endlessly, spinning the press. Murphy recounted how he secretly obtained jokes from Jay Leno, planted questions with network anchors, poked and prodded McCain, wrote the negative ad that backfired and battled his own colleagues for control of the all-important message--a real-time picture of a campaign's inner workings.

A sharp, funny and profane man, Murphy is a shrewd strategist, a committed conservative, a control freak, a serious historian, a flamboyant television performer. At 37, with thick-rimmed glasses, unruly blond hair, a healthy growth of stubble and a fondness for black leather jackets, he sometimes has the look of a mad professor.

In the end, Murphy was trapped by a fundamental paradox. As a handler for a candidate who refused to be handled, he was a political gunslinger who never got to fire all his ammunition and a fierce competitor who finally learned that some things, perhaps, are more important than winning.

The Takeoff

Nov. 9, Washington

John McCain may have lacked money, endorsements and good poll numbers, but Murphy knew his campaign had a natural base: the media. Reporters loved the guy, marveled at their unheard-of access. And Murphy was just the man to exploit that.

Sometimes that meant stroking a few egos. At the campaign's Alexandria headquarters one day, when columnist Robert Novak called to complain that the press office had been ignoring him, Murphy decided that the young punks needed to be more accommodating of the old bulls. He told Dan Schnur, the communications director, to call Novak and grovel a little, and rejiggered the schedule so McCain could appear on Novak's CNN show. End of spitting match.

McCain was starting to surge--he had just made the cover of Newsweek--and Murphy knew that tougher scrutiny was coming. On this day, Murphy was miffed by a New York Times story that had made McCain's temper the new media obsession. Here was the Times rolling out Michigan Gov. John Engler, a major Bush backer, to suggest that McCain was a hot-tempered psycho. Engler was a close friend--Murphy had helped get him elected--but politics was war.

Murphy urged McCain to brush off the story, but the candidate couldn't resist lashing out at the Bush camp during a speech in San Francisco. That was the thing about McCain, Murphy felt: He made mistakes, but he was no robo-pol.

Murphy himself was no slouch in the temper department. When he and the 63-year-old senator arrived at the first debate in New Hampshire, moderated by Cokie Roberts, Murphy threw a fit when an officious woman barred him from the set. "I've done a hundred of these goddamn debates and I want to see my guy under the lights!" he shouted. "Where's Cokie? I'll talk to Cokie!" McCain burst out laughing.

He learned to deal with McCain's moods. He reluctantly interrupted McCain while he was having breakfast in New Hampshire with his wife, Cindy, to show him a Wall Street Journal column assailing his temper. "God, where does this [excrement] come from?" McCain asked. "Half this [excrement] is made up." Murphy told him to keep defusing the issue with humor.

They soon got some help from an unexpected source: Jay Leno. The comedian called Dan Schnur and suggested a joke for McCain: "They say I get mad and lose my temper and call people liars and idiots. Hey, I work in Washington."

And part of Murphy's job was boosting McCain's spirits. When Bush boasted about his executive experience, they took turns reciting an imaginary ad about Bush's stint as part owner of the Texas Rangers. McCain won the contest with this line: "But when the scouting reports come in, there is only one lonely man in a dark office."

A sharp tongue, though, could be dangerous in a presidential race. Murphy cringed when McCain began holding forth for reporters on the campaign bus, convinced that he would foul things up. It was a tactic born of necessity, for they desperately needed free coverage. But romancing reporters, Murphy believed, was like having sex with scorpions: They could sting you at any moment.

But that didn't stop him. When he learned that Bush was slated to appear on "Meet the Press," he called Tim Russert, the program's host. A Washington Times story had declared that McCain was "going after the homosexual Republican vote" after the senator had met with the head of the gay Log Cabin Republicans. Murphy's sources told him that Ralph Reed and other Christian Super Patriots, as Murphy called them, were using the article to undermine McCain with religious conservatives. In an effort to smoke out Bush, Murphy faxed the clip to Russert, who asked the Texas governor whether he would meet with the group.

"Oh, probably not," Bush said. So much for Murphy's trap.

On a corporate jet to Phoenix, Murphy told McCain they had won the temper issue but needed to move on. "I ain't crazy" could not be their campaign theme.

The Rebel

Murphy was 29 when he got his first taste of presidential campaign life as a member of President George Bush's 1992 media team. Barely able to see his client, Murphy quit in frustration but controlled the spin, leaking a memo blasting the campaign.

In 1996, after working for Lamar Alexander, Murphy joined Robert J. Dole's campaign, clashed with senior officials, and quit. He was no one's idea of a team player.

A mile-a-minute talker who began making ads while a college student at Georgetown and once sported a "GO NEG" license plate, Murphy had worked for candidates as diverse as Oliver North, Christine Todd Whitman and Jeb Bush. In January 1999, he went to McCain's Senate office and delivered a 25-minute, 40-slide presentation on how he could win the nomination. Murphy's pitch: Skip the Iowa caucuses in favor of New Hampshire.

The staff was split; pollster Bill McInturff thought that bypassing Iowa would be suicide. But the senator eventually sided with Murphy, who promptly stuck a World War II bayonet through a wall map of Iowa.

Murphy had quietly been advising both Alexander and McCain, but when Alexander finished sixth in the Iowa straw poll, the senator asked Murphy to join his staff. First Murphy had to call Jeb Bush, the Florida governor who had given him a lucrative state party contract.

"Jeb, I've never been in a position in my life where I'm caught between a presidential candidate and a friend," Murphy said. "It's not about money, I've got money. I've got one more of these left in me before I get old and bald and married."

"Look, I'm going to have to fire you," Bush told Murphy. "It's my brother, Mike. What the hell can I do?"

Spin City

Dec. 2, North Hampton, N.H.

Murphy was standing in the kitchen of a white clapboard meeting house while McCain held forth for another overflow crowd. Scanning the day's clips, Murphy winced--a New York Times story was quoting "advisers to Mr. McCain" on how McCain might use his signature issue, campaign finance reform, against Bush in that night's debate. Obscure staffers, he grumbled, couldn't resist the chance to talk to reporters.

Just then, Murphy heard McCain suggest he might not fight to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling, and he swung into action. "He hiccupped on abortion," Murphy told campaign spokesman Todd Harris. "We have to talk to him before the scrum." They cleared the kitchen and warned McCain, but no reporter picked up on it.

Sometimes image was everything. McCain and the staff had to prepare for another debate the next day, and Dan Rather's producers at "60 Minutes II" were lobbying to tape the session. They would never let a reporter into the real debate prep, so they staged a Potemkin village exercise for CBS, tossing McCain softballs.

"Senator, blah blah blah blah blah, you're a screaming, hot-headed maniac," said Murphy, clad in his favorite Hawaiian shirt. "You know, you killed a guy on the way here to the debate. You're exploding every minute. Do you have the temperament to be president of the United States?"

"Well, you know, that really makes me mad," McCain joked--an exchange CBS was all too happy to air.

Minutes after the debate ended, Murphy appeared in the cavernous WMUR-TV pressroom. "We feel like we moved the needle for us," Murphy declared. "He had a stature advantage, a foreign policy advantage, an authenticity advantage. It was a pleasant, smiling George W. Bush, but I can't remember anything he said."

Murphy spotted columnist Jules Witcover. "There was one obvious president in the room, and that was McCain," he said. Murphy pivoted toward a Knight-Ridder reporter. "We did great," he said. "Authenticity and gravitas."

Finally, Murphy seemed talked out. "All right, where's the bar?" he said.

No sooner had Murphy reached the packed party at Jillian's saloon than Todd Harris told him Fox News wanted him live. "There was one president on the stage, and that was John McCain," he said into the camera. "It is hard for me to close my eyes and remember anything Governor Bush said."

Under Fire

Dec. 13, Des Moines

A strategist's job is to keep dodging bullets. The press was still firing away on McCain's temperament, so the campaign decided to give McCain's medical records to the AP's Fournier to put to rest any questions about his mental state. But campaign manager Rick Davis and political director John Weaver were lunching with Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson, whose magazine was about to put McCain on the cover, and they agreed to let Time share the exclusive. Murphy soon got an angry call from Newsweek's Howard Fineman, who cursed him out for the leak.

The next debate was in Arizona, and Murphy fed McCain a line that would underscore the contrast with Bush: "When there's a world hot spot, there's no second chance." Three times, McCain failed to repeat the line. "John, if you don't want to use it, just tell me," Murphy snapped. "I hate to go that far," McCain said.

McCain and his aides were bouncing from state to state, debate to debate, often making policy on the run. Murphy's big worry was that their small staff was incredibly thin on domestic policy. When McCain gave a health care speech in South Carolina, aides handed out two successive fact sheets with wrong numbers. Murphy started venting to the Alexandria office, which he had dubbed "the Pentagon."

"We didn't hit the iceberg, but I've got ice all over the deck," he declared. "Congratulations, everyone."

On a flight to Des Moines, Murphy was nervous that McCain might soften his planned attack on ethanol. The federally subsidized fuel was popular in Iowa, but Murphy wanted to burnish McCain's national image. "You like to please an audience," Murphy told him. "This is not the audience to please. Your job is to go lose Iowa."

McCain laughed. "Yeah, yeah, pal," he said. "Got it, got it."

And then, more aggravation: Someone had leaked an internal poll to Fournier showing they had narrowed Bush's South Carolina margin to 27 points. This overlapping campaign structure was maddening: Murphy could do whatever he wanted, but he didn't have the authority to stop anyone else from doing something.

Dec. 16, Claremont, N.H.

John Weaver had scored a major coup when Bill Bradley agreed to join McCain in New Hampshire to promote campaign finance reform. But Murphy's effort to choreograph the event kept getting bogged down over strange details.

One issue was whether the candidates would do their thing sitting down or standing up. Bradley, he was told, didn't like to sit down, but Murphy didn't want his guy dwarfed by the former New York Knicks star. Murphy wanted them to sign an oversize document pledging not to accept soft money, and he was disgusted when Bradley's advisers said they didn't descend to such photo ops.

It was frigid that day, so Bradley and McCain decided to wear their overcoats. Murphy briefly panicked--McCain's overcoat was tan, which didn't look presidential--and hastily arranged for him to borrow aide Mark Salter's dark coat. The two candidates never did sit down, but Bradley crouched so the stature gap was not overly apparent.

Meanwhile, McCain was itching to attack Bush's huge tax-cut proposal as a giveaway to the rich, but Murphy was worried that he would sound too much like Bill Clinton. Murphy wasn't sure they could sell McCain's plan to devote most of the budget surplus to strengthening Social Security. But once the decision was made, Murphy wrote a phrase on an index card--calling Social Security a "ticking time bomb"--and that became McCain's refrain.

More problems: A radio ad had aired in South Carolina without Murphy's approval, with Rep. Lindsey Graham saying that McCain, unlike Clinton, had "absolute total character and candor." McCain wanted to pull the ad, but Weaver refused. Murphy was afraid the accusation was handing the press a hypocrisy angle--a constant danger for a politician running as a righteous reformer.

The next morning, Jan. 5, the Boston Globe had its own hypocrisy angle, reporting that McCain had pressed federal regulators to vote on a television license for Paxson Communications, a major campaign donor. In McCain's cottage at the Wayfarer Inn in Bedford, Murphy told the candidate to stick to his argument that he had done nothing wrong.

But Murphy had underestimated the story's impact. Ted Koppel called hours later, and Murphy reluctantly agreed that McCain would appear that evening on "Nightline." "Welcome to the big time," Murphy told McCain. "You've got to duke it out with Koppel because now you can be president."

Two nights later, minutes before a debate in South Carolina, Weaver handed Murphy an AP report on McCain's intervention with the FCC on behalf of another donor, Ameritech. Murphy had spent the last three hours pumping up McCain and didn't want to break his mood.

When the debate began, MSNBC's Brian Williams told McCain: "Senator, I'm reading from the Associated Press a few minutes ago this evening . . ." Murphy kicked himself for not warning the boss.

Playing Defense

Jan. 22, Bedford, N.H.

A presidential campaign attracts all sorts of far-fetched charges, but Murphy never dreamed that his candidate would be accused of being involved in murder. This was nutty, flying saucer stuff.

The Arizona Republic, which had been feuding with McCain for years, was making trouble again. A Republic reporter had called with allegations that McCain might have played a role in the death of an Arizona man who had been peddling a story that the senator was supposedly having an affair with Connie Stevens.

At the Wayfarer, Murphy quickly ascertained that McCain didn't even know the murder victim. What's more, McCain had met the famous singer four times, all in public settings, such as Milton Berle's 90th birthday party.

Dan Schnur was in Phoenix, telling the paper's editor, Pam Johnson, that if she published the allegations "you will go down in the journalism textbooks in the same sentence as Janet Cooke," the reporter who fabricated a Washington Post story in 1980. Just before 4 p.m., Schnur called the campaign in Orangeburg, S.C., to say the Republic was not publishing the story.

Danger seemed to lurk everywhere. While McCain addressed a packed auditorium at Nashua High School, Murphy slipped into the hallway to call one of his spies. His cell-phone source said Bush was about to air an ad comparing McCain to Clinton, based on their tax plans, and offered to meet him with details.

The Bush camp decided to kill the ad, but figuring out how to respond to Bush's swipes had bedeviled the McCain campaign for weeks. After the Texas governor aired a commercial wrongly accusing McCain of backing $40 billion in new taxes, McInturff and others pushed for a counterattack ad, which Murphy and Weaver opposed.

Murphy was having dinner at Elaine's in Manhattan when McCain called him from South Carolina. He said he had just told campaign manager Rick Davis to hold off on their response ad. "It's a fire extinguisher with no fire," McCain said.

The next day, at a private jet terminal in Greenville, S.C., McCain and Murphy were at a conference table, debating the situation with Davis and the Pentagon by speakerphone. Weaver whispered to Murphy that the campaign staff, flouting the senator's wishes, had started airing the commercial that morning in New Hampshire. Murphy was crimson-faced, quaking with rage. He was so mad that he cut his left knuckle while twisting a piece of aluminum under the table.

The staff persuaded McCain to approve the ad, which, unbeknown to him, was already on the air. (Davis would insist he made the final decision after hearing everyone out.) Murphy decided not to tell the senator for fear he would lose faith in his team. However dumb the maneuver, it was not worth blowing up the campaign.

Day after day, Murphy sat next to McCain's maroon swivel chair on the bus, whispering instructions on his Nokia cell phone, firing off e-mail on his Sony laptop, interrupting McCain when he wandered into trouble. Murphy had grown wary of Tina Cassidy, a Boston Globe reporter who had asked him whether McCain planned to fill the Supreme Court with right-to-lifers. One morning Cassidy asked the senator what he would do if his 15-year-old, Meghan, needed an abortion. McCain fumbled, saying his daughter would decide after consulting with the family--a disastrous answer for a pro-life conservative. McCain was disgusted as they retreated to a rented studio for debate prep. "I said it would be a family decision," he said.

"No, you didn't," Murphy said.

"She's a minor!" McCain shot back. "What am I supposed to do, lock her in the closet?" Cindy McCain was extremely upset. The senator wanted to make a defensive-sounding explanation; Murphy told him to just say he had misspoken and had him call Alison Mitchell of the New York Times on her cell phone to say so.

Riding High

Feb. 1, Nashua, N.H.

On the afternoon of the New Hampshire primary, Murphy was walking into McCain's hotel with Weaver and Davis when his cell phone rang. It was NBC's Russert, telling him that network exit polls showed McCain with a lead of 15 to 17 points. McCain wanted to know what was up.

"Look, I never jerk my candidate around with early exit polls, but what we know is good," Murphy said. When later polls made clear that McCain was trouncing Bush with a surge of independents and Democrats, the candidate hugged Murphy, Weaver and Bill McInturff around the shoulders.

"I think you're going to be the nominee," Murphy said. "And then you're going to be president, you poor devil."

Murphy, after weeks of sending home his laundry by Federal Express, was exhausted. He tried to doze on the flight to South Carolina and didn't get to bed until 5 a.m.

The campaign now seemed stuck on fast-forward, with crises erupting hour by hour. That Friday, McCain and Murphy were heading to Jay Leno's Burbank studio in a van when Murphy got a call that Bush had gone up with a new negative ad. The phone rang again; the Arizona Republic was now planning to run the murder story. As they were waved through the NBC gates, Murphy tried to keep McCain focused on being funny.

Going Negative

Feb. 4, San Francisco

Murphy retreated to his hotel room in San Francisco that night to do what he did best: fight fire with fire. He was determined to write a tough negative ad to blunt Bush's aerial assault on McCain. He had been through the exercise hundreds of times; you had to punch back. They couldn't let Bush smear McCain. The attacker had to pay a price.

Media consultant Greg Stevens had already cut a spot with a female narrator saying: "Do Americans really want another president they can't trust?" That was too harsh, Murphy felt, but it had already been made public.

In the space of an hour, Murphy banged out a new script for McCain to deliver, saying that Bush was "twisting the truth like Clinton." That, Murphy felt, was better than calling him untrustworthy, especially if McCain seemed calm and presidential. But McCain was clearly nervous when Murphy read him the script over the phone, and he also taped a Stevens version that omitted the Clinton line.

On Saturday night, Rick Davis was at the Arizona Republic, standing on a desk and declaring: "I'm going to sue your paper." But Pam Johnson, the editor, ordered the story published after the first two editions had passed.

The lengthy piece said the dead man, former journalist Ron Bianchi, had "spread a far-fetched rumor" about McCain. He had told the Republic that McCain "was having an affair with Connie Stevens" and that "they had met through mobsters." The paper could find no evidence to confirm Bianchi's claim. Connie Stevens had denied it. Bianchi's widow said she had no evidence. And the Gila County attorney said in an affidavit that a deputy had interviewed McCain to persuade the Republic reporters to "drop their pursuit of their unsubstantiated rumors."

Murphy made sure that they got the supporting documents to Sam Donaldson, who didn't raise the subject with McCain the next morning on ABC's "This Week." Davis called an associate of Rupert Murdoch, a McCain donor, and was assured that Murdoch's New York Post would not pick up the tale from the tabloid Star.

They were working McCain like a dog, and the strain was showing. The next day McCain got rather curt under questioning at the Detroit News. Murphy told him that he had to cool it. "But these [expletives], Jesus Christ," McCain protested.

"I don't want you to pop off at one of these guys and have a temper story."

"Was it that bad?"

Off Message

Feb. 10, Spartanburg, S.C.

As they matched Bush's negative ads with their own, Murphy stuck to his mantra: They couldn't be like Bill Bradley. Bradley was getting creamed because he had failed to respond to Al Gore's attacks. McCain the combat pilot agreed. To be passive was a sign of weakness.

But as Bush seized on Murphy's spot to launch a new round of attack ads, the press began covering them like two squabbling politicians. Schnur thought the Clinton ad was a mistake. McInturff had them sinking in the polls, and Davis and Stevens were extremely concerned. Their reform message was being drowned out.

On Thursday, Feb. 10, while McCain was holding a town meeting, Murphy, Weaver and Salter stayed on the bus to look at a positive ad that stressed McCain's Vietnam service. Murphy suggested that McCain ambush Bush at an event, challenging the governor to take down his negative ads.

But when McCain got back on the bus, he was visibly upset. A woman in the audience had told him that her Boy Scout son had received a call in which McCain was described as a liar and a fraud. He decided to announce that he was yanking his negative spots for good.

On Friday, Murphy was stunned to discover that the Pentagon had slashed the air time for his Clinton ad the previous Tuesday without telling him. Rick Davis said everyone had known the ad schedule and perhaps Murph was out of the loop. But Murphy felt saddled with the worst of both worlds: Bush was pummeling them over an attack ad that almost no one had seen.

Murphy, meanwhile, peeled off in New York to sign a deal to sell his consulting firm to Interpublic Group. He was now worth millions of dollars. But he had no time to savor the moment.

As the South Carolina campaign got uglier, Murphy tried to shield McCain from the underground attacks, such as the one claiming McCain had fathered out-of-wedlock children. Murphy worried about violating his cardinal rule: Don't Fall in Love With the Meat. You had to keep your emotions out of these campaigns or your judgment got impaired. Murphy was getting too attached to Johnny Mac. The man had struck a chord with the country, but that was very different from winning the nomination.

The Calls

Feb. 19, Greenville, S.C.

On Saturday evening, after Russert had called Murphy with the South Carolina exit polls, McCain took each one of his children into the hotel bedroom to tell them he was going to lose. Cindy McCain was in tears. But Murphy and Salter were more concerned with the concession speech. With just three days before Michigan, they were determined to use this brief moment of television attention to reframe the debate. They had to make Bush's South Carolina tactics the issue.

When McCain recited their words, accusing Bush of peddling a "negative message of fear," the TV commentators trashed the speech as too angry. They were all Beltway idiots, Murphy felt.

McCain was down after the defeat. Murphy wrote up some talking points for the next morning's appearance on "Meet the Press." "The whole world is waiting to see if you're ready to fight on Russert," he told McCain.

But inside "The Bubble," as the traveling staff was called, Murphy was growing depressed, calling Republicans "the stupid party" and telling reporters to "stop writing the goddamn obits." During a rally in Lansing, Mich., Murphy had stayed on the bus to doze when Weaver suddenly climbed aboard.

"It's obvious you're down," Weaver said. "It's affecting the candidate. It's affecting a lot of people, because they watch you. You've got to get your head back into it."

The next day, McCain was doing a radio interview from the kitchen of his Phoenix home when Russert called Murphy with the first wave of Michigan exit polls. Murphy blurted out that they were up by four points, but McCain shushed him. Murphy tried conveying the news with hand signals.

After the victory that night, Murphy lined up interviews for McCain with the network morning shows and Chris Matthews's "Hardball" on MSNBC, but he passed on "Nightline." It wasn't long before Ted Koppel called. "Why are you doing Chris Matthews when I have 100 times the viewers?" Koppel asked.

Murphy said he was worried that Koppel would make a big issue of their negative phone calls to Michigan voters, which the campaign had finally acknowledged to Ron Fournier. Koppel said that wasn't his focus, and Murphy relented.

Feb. 20, Charleston, S.C.

The negative calls were coming back to haunt Murphy. He knew from the start that they would be radioactive because McCain had complained so vehemently about Bush's South Carolina phone calls while selling himself as the high-road candidate. Now it was the McCain camp contacting 50,000 Catholics with a harsh message about Bush.

When reporters on the bus asked whether the calls mentioned Bush's speech at Bob Jones, Murphy said he wasn't sure and would have to check. He knew full well that Bob Jones was part of the script, but he didn't want a new round of stories ruining their Michigan upset.

The problem was that McCain had denied responsibility for the calls in interviews with NBC and Fox. He would later say he meant they were making no phone calls accusing Bush of being a bigot; these calls merely implied that Bush was a bigot. Since McCain hadn't seen the script, Murphy had urged him to say he didn't know the details. But McCain hated evading questions, and now he looked like a dissembler.

"They're going to hang me to a higher standard as usual," McCain grumbled. But Murphy wasn't too upset. The flap was keeping Bush's Bob Jones fiasco in the news.

The Implosion

Feb. 24, Cottonwood, Ariz.

Murphy was no fan of the Christian right, so when Rick Davis suggested that McCain give a speech in Virginia Beach assailing Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, he saw it as a great opportunity.

The staff hashed out the idea at McCain's ranch, and everyone knew it would be controversial. But McCain insisted the speech would be a declaration of his core principles. Murphy figured they had lost the Christian rank and file anyway and that a bold speech might draw new voters to McCain's banner.

Murphy softened the speech a little after getting Salter's first draft by e-mail, toning down an attack on Christian leaders for "turning a cause into a business." When McCain finished his oration, Murphy loudly declared: "It's a home run."

On the bus the next morning, Murphy winced as McCain launched into a riff about battling "the forces of evil." Most of the reporters regarded the comment as typical McCain. But a New York Times metro reporter named David Barstow, whom Murphy had immediately distrusted, was filling in and was not accustomed to McCain's shtick about being Luke Skywalker taking on the dark forces.

At 1:30 a.m., when Murphy checked the Times Web site, he saw two front-page stories: their losses in Virginia and Washington state, and Barstow's "evil" story. Murphy uttered a choice expletive.

McCain blamed himself that morning. He had gotten only two hours of sleep, and he made his worst mistakes when he was tired.

Hours later, at the Riverside, Calif., convention center, Murphy, Weaver and Salter huddled in a stairwell. They decided to put out a statement in which McCain apologized for using the word "evil." The larger question was whether they should back off the increasingly controversial assault on Robertson and Falwell.

"This is crazy," Murphy said. "The speech was right. The speech is why he's running." McCain later agreed, saying: "I don't know if this thing was smart politics, but how much of our campaign is?"

The pace was furious now; Murphy's phone wouldn't stop ringing. It was Leno again. "I hear Bush is doing Letterman. We kill Letterman in the ratings. We'll call it the late-night primary. We'll bury him."

But the plan to do the "Tonight" show that evening got fouled up by an aide who had scheduled McCain to appear on "Hardball" at the same time. Angry and embarrassed, Murphy had to cancel Leno, who had just faxed them some more jokes. But he wound up renting a helicopter that got McCain into makeup as Leno was chatting with actress Neve Campbell.

Back on the plane, Murphy asked McCain to consider a "soft negative" ad against Bush. McCain was silent for a long moment. "You know, I've got to do what I said I would do," he said. At the hotel that night, Murphy, Weaver and Salter showed him a mild ad comparing the candidates on spending and Social Security. McCain vetoed it.

No Regrets

March 3, New York

As his bus snaked up Manhattan's West Side Highway, McCain was clearly down. He was exhausted--they had landed in New York at 1:30 a.m.--and he knew things did not look good for Super Tuesday. But in a strange way he felt relieved. Chatting with his older daughter, Cindy, he said he would not try for the presidency again.

"If I was 43 or 53, it might be different," McCain said. "But I'm 63, a pretty old geezer. I can't see starting over with town meetings of 20 people."

He knew the attacks on Falwell and Robertson had not helped him, but he had no regrets. Besides, McCain felt he had changed the shape of politics.

"Mike Murphy--he's one of the funniest guys I've ever met in politics--says that working on this campaign is like being the roadie for the Wallendas," McCain chuckled. "The whole campaign has been a high-wire act."

That afternoon, Murphy, too, seemed resigned to losing. He felt the process had been cleansing for a consultant who had won his share of ugly races. Being around McCain had made them all feel good.

It was ironic: They had made John McCain the most popular politician in America, one who could undoubtedly win the White House in the fall, but they couldn't burst through the narrow arteries of the Republican Party and deliver the nomination.

They had lost the race but captured the national imagination. Murphy was convinced he had blown up his own political career with the Republican establishment. For the moment, at least, he didn't much care.

The Long Goodbye

March 9, Sedona, Ariz.

It was the last ride on the Straight Talk Express for Murphy, Weaver, Davis, Salter, Stevens and McInturff, and most were fighting back tears. Amid the majestic red mountains of Arizona, they stood off to the left as McCain faced the cameras and bowed out of the race. Murphy and others openly cried. Back at the cabin, while McCain grilled pork ribs for the staff, served beer and whiskey sours, and played an oldies rock station, Murphy's easy cynicism was swept away by emotion.

"Cheer up," McCain told Murphy. "I've never seen you so glum."

"I'm Irish," Murphy said. "I have to go through my dark period." The final parting was far harder than he had expected. He had fallen in love with the meat.