In war and in politics, John McCain has endured more than his share of near-death experiences. He's been shot out of the sky and held captive, hung from ropes by his two broken arms and beaten senseless. This is his second run for President; he lost before, has nearly lost again and has been all but disowned by his party. So on the night of South Carolina's Republican primary, when the victory he needed to keep his campaign alive seemed as if it might be slipping away once again, McCain stood silent amid the chaos of his crowded hotel suite, his eyes fixed on the television screen. The normally loquacious Senator, who is rarely silent and hates to miss a punch line, was tuning the rest of the room out. Rumors that the primary was about to be called for McCain had fizzled, supplanted by whispers that Mike Huckabee had taken a slim lead in the ballot count. For a moment, it all seemed as though it were going to fall down again.
But the announcement came: "McCain wins South Carolina!" The room erupted in cheers; McCain's wife Cindy dissolved into tears; and the candidate's pale, scarred, 71-year-old face spread into a triumphant grin. "Whether it was because of what happened eight years ago in South Carolina or because his campaign was declared dead last July, I don't know," says Mark Salter, McCain's adviser, speechwriter and alter ego. "But he was as happy as I've ever seen him." The old warrior in McCain has learned to savor every battle won because he knows it could be the last.
McCain has traveled a long road to get where he is now, positioned as the ever-so-slight front-runner for the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Last summer his once formidable campaign all but collapsed in debt and acrimony, with even his closest friends and advisers questioning whether he should bother marching on.
Now having won two important early contests (New Hampshire came first), McCain finds himself burdened with the front-runner label for the second time in a month, the third time in the past year and the fourth time since the 2000 primaries, when he challenged, briefly triumphed over and then was crushed in South Carolina by George W. Bush. Up to this point in McCain's career as a presidential candidate, becoming the man to beat has meant, inexorably, that he was about to be beaten.
Whether that history repeats itself may depend on Florida, where the G.O.P. primary is a closed affair. That means no independents or crossover Democrats, the voters who secured McCain's victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, are permitted to cast ballots. If McCain does manage to win in such a pure party contest, it could be enough to persuade Republicans, desperate for clarity in this wild election cycle, to rally around him. "Florida is turning out to be the decisive state for the Republican Party," says Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 campaign. "Whoever comes out on top is going to have a tremendous amount of momentum."
Maybe. But John McCain has been in presidential politics long enough to know that there is always the McCain exception to every rule. After he decisively beat former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in neighboring New Hampshire, McCain's low-budget campaign expected a windfall of fresh donations to help propel it forward. But the haul was disappointing; donors still weren't ready to buy in to a candidate they view as too much of a risk. The towering obstacle between McCain and victory is not so much his rivals for the nomination but the suspicion long held by many Republicans, especially rock-ribbed conservatives, that the Senator and former war hero is too much the maverick on issues that matter deeply to them to be trusted to occupy the White House.