It was a sweltering mid-August afternoon at the Iowa State Fair, and John McCain, his face smeared with a whitish sunblock and his shirt stained with sweat, was not a happy warrior.
As an aide searched for a scrap of shade for her boss, the 71-year-old Arizona senator stood amid hay bales at the Des Moines Register candidate soapbox, rushed through a three-minute speech decrying pork-barrel spending and defending his support of the Iraq war—"I would much rather lose a campaign than lose a war"—and took a few questions before high-tailing it out of the sun-baked Hawkeye State.
At that moment, it seemed that the formerly highflying candidate would, indeed, lose the campaign. His 50-state quest for the White House had just collapsed as top staffers resigned and offices were shuttered. His bank account, once fat with $24 million, was all but empty. To top it off, the former Navy fighter pilot finished an embarrassing 10th out of 11 candidates in Iowa's GOP presidential straw poll days before, besting only a fellow named John Cox, whom nobody had heard of. (Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finished first; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, second.)
With five months to go before the Iowa caucuses would open the presidential voting season, McCain's political obituaries were being written. But even on that hot summer day, quitting never entered his mind. Says McCain: "I knew that I wasn't going to drop out; you just continue and stop reading the polls. But I was willing to accept the verdict of the voters."
Brick by brick, on the cheap, and with some luck, McCain hunkered down and rebuilt his campaign. The keys to turning it around, he says, were his long-standing support of the troop surge in Iraq that succeeded in reducing violence, his September "No Surrender" bus tour in New Hampshire that focused on his support of the war and featured men who were prisoners of war with him in Vietnam, and a good post-Labor Day debate performance. "It didn't get a lot of coverage," he says of the debate, "but it was watched by a lot of people in New Hampshire."
Turnaround. It was in New Hampshire that he managed to reverse his fortunes with a primary win in early January, and on Super Tuesday the verdict of a much wider swath of voters was returned. Much to the consternation of the GOP's right flank and with the party's very conservative voters remaining divided between Romney and Huckabee, McCain put a cap on his stunning turnaround by winning nine states and capturing enough delegates to put him on a glide path to the GOP nomination. His resurgence was confirmed when Romney dropped out of the race last week after a disappointing showing on Super Tuesday. "If I fight on in my campaign," Romney said, "I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win."
McCain's victories last week, following other wins in South Carolina and Florida, came despite attacks from the likes of radio talker Rush Limbaugh and a raft of social conservatives, including influential evangelical leader James Dobson of Focus on the Family. They consider the senator a traitor to the conservative cause on issues including his support of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, his leading role in campaign finance reform, and his efforts on immigration reform that included a path toward citizenship for illegal aliens.
But by cobbling together support from the party's liberal, moderate, and somewhat conservative members, and in particular voters who said they value character and national security, McCain managed to put together a new GOP coalition, one largely without social conservatives who have long played starring roles in Republican elections. That coalition (with help from independent voters) not only allowed him to assert last week that he's ready to "wrap this thing up" but also raised questions about whether his success without the support of the far right represents a post-Reagan revolution or, at the least, a major realignment within a fractured and demoralized party.