A year ago the smart money was on John McCain to be the Republican nominee. He had the biggest and best campaign operation, plenty of George Bush’s supporters and moneymen and healthy poll numbers.
The combination of conservative fury over immigration reform and a financial train wreck in his campaign operation subsequently sent his poll numbers plunging and convinced pundits his candidacy was doomed.
And now, in the days before Iowa, he’s still an underdog, but he’s coming up in the New Hampshire polls and is once again the darling of the pundits.
While Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee spent weeks arguing about who was the more earnest representative of religious-right voters, Mr. McCain spent his time on actual policy issues.
While his opponents talked about faith, Mr. McCain banked on the old-fashioned notion that primary voters care about policy. He argued that he had expertise on the issues most critical to the U.S.—defense policy, Iraq strategy and foreign affairs—and that he had held firm on fiscal discipline when his Congressional colleagues had not. Mr. McCain made himself most relevant just as his opponents were marginalizing themselves.
Of course, Mr. McCain has also benefited from his rivals’ glaring weaknesses, which, over a long campaign, have loomed larger and more troubling with each passing week. Mr. Romney demonstrated an Al Gore-like penchant for exaggeration that, along with his policy transformations on everything from abortion to immigration to gun control, led editorial pages to issue scathing indictments. He has very publicly become the man who will say or do anything to gain political favor.
While Mr. Romney was hobbled by a lack of conviction, Mr. Huckabee seemed to have too many of the wrong ones. He embraced populist views at odds with much of the conservative base and rattled fiscal and law-and-order Republicans with his refusal to distance himself from his record as Arkansas governor. His erratic and ill-informed foreign policy views only made matters worse.
For many G.O.P. voters, Mr. Romney is the wrong messenger, and Mr. Huckabee is carrying the wrong message.
Meanwhile, Fred Thompson lived up to his billing as an indifferent politician. With Rudy Giuliani at least temporarily hobbled by New York pseudo-scandals and focused on primaries still weeks away, there was an opening for a serious, policy-oriented candidate. If Mr. McCain was not conservatives’ ideal spokesman, after months he seemed at the very least more mature and prepared to govern than his rivals.
And there is reason to believe that the reinvigorated John McCain is stronger than the original. He seems to have benefited from the loss of a huge campaign apparatus that was decidedly at odds with his freewheeling style. Stripped of his enormous staff and media entourage, he returned to the formula that served him well in 2000—frequent and unfiltered press access, numerous town hall events and a never-ending series of network and cable news appearances that focused on his substantive, uncompromised views.
Mr. McCain appears to have learned to play to the Republican base without losing his political soul. His Woodstock-museum jibe at Hillary Clinton and unflinching criticism of Democratic opponents of Iraq policy as well as his invocation of Judeo-Christian values reassured conservatives he had their interests at heart.
Yet he has reminded voters that he has not shaded his views for the sake of political convenience, pointing out to his audiences that he had been an early critic of Donald Rumsfeld’s Iraq strategy and continuing to speak forcefully about global warming.
Mr. McCain is hardly in a commanding position at this point. His rivals continue to pound him on immigration, and he trails badly in the money race.
But with world events reminding voters of the stakes in the upcoming election, the time may just be right for an experienced if not-quite-solid conservative like Mr. McCain, who is, at least, less troubling than the alternatives.