Maverick No More

John McCain, welcome to the club. In the past, McCain hasbeen known as everything from maverick to fringe candidate to walking dead man.(Last month, we used the words “McCain” and “embalming fluid” in the same sentence.) He has appealedto an unlikely combination of independents, national security buffs, war hawks,and immigration moderates. The question was always whether he could assembleanything resembling the coalition necessary to win the Republican nomination.

Tonight doesn’t seal the deal, but it’s the beginning of theend. Momentum-wise, McCain will ride into the Feb. 5 states with a crownalready hovering somewhere near his head, if not sitting on it. That means morefree media (as if he needs it), more donations, more endorsements, and biggercrowds—all the flakes that make up the ever-growing snowball. Delegate-wise,he’s now the clear front-runner , with 89 pledged delegates to Romney’s 27.  

Now McCain has to spend his capital wisely. He has shown hecan win without independents, seeing as this was a closed election. But theresults also prove McCain can compete on Romney’s turf. Exit polls showed himtowering over Romney among Hispanics—a fact he should exploit in California. Floridiansmost concerned about the economy also preferred McCain over his rival—and heshould use that, too, in states hit hardest by the recent market swings. After Florida, Romney’s “base”is starting to look a lot less stable.

There may even a death blow coming. Word has it Giulianiwill endorse McCain tomorrow. (In his remarks tonight, Rudy said everything youneed for a drop-out speech short of “I am dropping out.”) If so, that couldseal the deal for McCain. Granted, Giuliani supporters might have swung to the Arizona senator anyway.But the endorsement adds symbolic heft to the reshuffling. And even if you tackedonly half of Giuliani’s 15 percent or so from tonight onto McCain’s, he wouldhave a punishing lead.

“Our victory might not have reached landslide proportions,”McCain said in his speech tonight, “but it is sweet nonetheless.” If Florida is any indication, he’ll taste it again. But he knows the price. “Tonight, my friends, we celebrate,” he said. “Tomorrow, it’s back to work.”