How McCain Had It Won From the Start

Never let it be said that Republican primaries aren’t orderly.

John McCain, after a spectacular rebound from the early near-collapse of his campaign, is now in a prime position to win the nomination. Yes, he’s succeeding in part by holding fast to his original course as his opponents, for various reasons, have foundered. But he’s also there, like every Republican nominee in the last three decades, because it’s his turn.

This is the way it has been since the first full-fledged G.O.P. primary campaign, when President Gerald Ford beat back a stiff challenge from Ronald Reagan in 1976. Then, when the nomination came open in 1980, it was Reagan’s turn, and he fended off the insurgency of a onetime C.I.A. boss named George H. W. Bush. Mr. Bush became the anointed one in 1988 when he knocked off Bob Dole—who finally, at the age of 73, got a turn of his own in 1996.

Republicans love their front-runners and abhor lengthy, untidy nomination fights. Even in the run-up to the 2000 campaign, when it seemed like it might be no one’s turn, the party establishment swiftly rallied behind George W. Bush, handing him all of the financial and institutional benefits enjoyed by previous heirs apparent. Mr. Bush then knocked off John McCain, who in the course of the primary campaign emerged from obscurity to become the most popular politician in the country—but not in his own party.

That near-miss turned Mr. McCain into the clear Republican front-runner for either 2004 or 2008, depending on Mr. Bush’s fortunes in the general election. When Mr. Bush edged out Al Gore (and selected a vice president who had no interest in succeeding him), Mr. McCain’s appointment with the G.O.P. nomination was set for 2008.

And here we are, with Mr. McCain on the brink of running his remaining foes out of contention. History, it seems, is repeating—and affirming—itself.

Yes, Mr. McCain’s road from insurgent to front-runner has been far rockier than Reagan’s, Mr. Dole’s and the first Mr. Bush’s.

The first detour came when he went through his Teddy Roosevelt phase. Infuriated by Mr. Bush’s dishonorable campaign in 2000, Mr. McCain began mimicking the 26th president—a quintessential maverick and one of his self-identified political heroes—who, fed up with the stodgy party establishment that refused to back him in 1912, bolted the G.O.P. and mounted an independent presidential campaign.

In the fall of 2000, Mr. McCain offered only lukewarm support for Mr. Bush, just enough to stay in the good graces of party regulars if Mr. Bush went down to defeat and left the nomination open for 2004. And when Mr. Bush became president, Mr. McCain embraced the role of conscientious objector, attacking the ambitious tax cuts that were the new president’s top priority. He also stepped up his level of cooperation with Senate Democrats—so much that, credible reports later revealed, he sent clear signals to the Senate’s Democratic leadership that he was open to leaving the G.O.P.

Mr. McCain happily stoked talk that he’d seek a rematch with Mr. Bush in 2004—maybe in a G.O.P. primary, maybe as an independent or perhaps even on the Democratic ticket. He was clearly not content to wait for 2008.

But 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ruled out an ’04 presidential bid, and when his old friend John Kerry asked him to join him on that year’s Democratic ticket, Mr. McCain refused. An open Republican nomination in 2008 suddenly wasn’t so far off.

After the ’04 election, Mr. McCain began mending fences with the right, making peace with Jerry Falwell and embracing the very Bush tax cuts he’d once opposed. He assembled an ’08 campaign team with many of the consultants and moneymen who’d battled him in 2000, while retaining most of his original political base. Mr. McCain began 2007 as the clear favorite to win the nomination, and his campaign talked of raising $100 million.

But then came the second detour: Iraq and immigration. Mr. McCain’s intimate attachment to a war that seemed hopeless and his failure to grasp the depth of anti-immigration sentiment in the G.O.P. base gave grass-roots Republicans and big-dollar donors pause. His poll numbers tanked and by June he was declared politically dead.

He has recovered—in part because the military success of the “surge” has made the G.O.P. less queasy about being closely associated with the war, and in part because the party’s base never rallied around any of Mr. McCain’s rivals, whose pasts are also riddled with ideological impurities.

It hasn’t been pretty, but it looks like the Republican establishment is ending up exactly where it was forecasted to be. Again.

How McCain Had It Won From the Start