Read John Dickerson’s coverage of the New Hampshire Democratic primary here.
John McCain was looking at a television that appeared to be in the same credenza that he’d stood in front of eight years ago in a suite at the Nashua Crowne Plaza. The AP had called the election for him, but he didn’t look like he believed it. He wanted to hear it from the television. When he did, McCain showed no visible emotion. His wife Cindy’s eyes filled with tears, but McCain did little more than play with the green rubber band around his left hand. A cheer erupted in the room, filled with many of the same advisers who had been there eight years ago. “Great news,” said McCain, finally turning to kiss his wife, who wore a jeweled McCain 2008 pin on the lapel of her ruby-red jacket.
McCain’s speechwriter and co-author Mark Salter leaned over to me and smiled, “Too tough to die.”
He was supposed to die last summer after a brutal staff shakeup and spending almost all the money he’d raised. To revive himself, he rented a cheaper, smellier bus than he’d driven around when he was the high-flying front-runner. He returned to New Hampshire for an endless round of town halls of the kind that had led to his surprise victory in 2000. “We sure showed them what a comeback looks like,” said McCain in his acceptance speech.
Conventional wisdom was wrong. McCain did not lose a big share of independents to Barack Obama. As many independents voted in the GOP primary as did in 2000. McCain led his rivals with more than one-third of their backing. Proving he hasn’t lost his appeal to middle-of-the-road voters will help his argument that he’s the most electable Republican in November. He also won Republican voters. Winning in the GOP—particularly in the face of Romney’s attacks on his immigration and tax-cut positions—will help McCain argue that he is also a party favorite.
For Mitt Romney, the night was another tough blow. New Hampshire was supposed to give him his second win in the discarded momentum strategy that had him sealing the nomination after two early wins. The Olympics may have been easier to rescue. “He can’t sell himself,” said McCain’s ally Lindsey Graham, summing up Romney’s problem.
As McCain’s advisers planned for the concession call from Mitt Romney, he took a call from his oldest son, a midshipman at the Naval Academy:
“Jack Boy. Boy we won,” he said into the cell phone.
“Ways to go. Ways to go.”
“OK, now back to your studies.”
Immediately afterward, rival Mike Huckabee called. To get some privacy, McCain backed into the bathroom off the living room and shut the door.
Back in the living room of the suite, McCain returned to the television screen, and we watched the returns from the Democratic race. “Boy, this Clinton-Obama race is interesting, isn’t it?” he said to me, as he squinted into the screen. Aides were scurrying to find his speechwriter’s laptop. The acceptance speech they’d written for him included this line: “I want to congratulate Senator Obama tonight on his impressive victory, and I salute his supporters who worked so hard to achieve their success and believe so passionately in the promise of their candidate.” They had to edit that one out.
Was he happy? another reporter asked him. “I’m very happy,” he said, showing no visible evidence of it. The room swarmed with his blogging daughter Meghan and her friends, but McCain kept returning to the pose he’d held since hearing the results, both hands grasping the lapels of his blue suit.
McCain retired to the bedroom to sit on the bed and practice. When he returned, he was inching back to his normal cut-up mood. He pretended to read the speech: “Despite the best efforts of the liberal commie media, I was able to overcome … no, no, we’re going to try to talk about big themes.”
When Mitt Romney came on the television to give his concession speech, McCain asked for the volume to be turned down. No one did it. “Well, I won the silver again,” said Romney. McCain screwed up his mouth a little, rolled his eyes, and said, “See, that’s why I wanted the television off.”
McCain flies to Michigan tomorrow and then ends the day in South Carolina. The last time he flew there after winning the New Hampshire primary in 2000, it was as an insurgent out to destroy the GOP establishment. Now McCain heads to the state with no clear establishment opponent and plenty of establishment support. One of the state’s senators, Lindsey Graham, a McCain ally then and now, reflected on the change as he sat in the corner drinking bottled water. “We’re not going to put up with what happened last time,” he said. “We’re going to have a structure we didn’t have before. I’m going to call some people tonight and see if they’ll come over.” Earlier in the night, he’d joked they’d need flak jackets and helmets to handle the onslaught from Romney.
By the time he had left to give his acceptance speech, McCain had rolled it to the diameter of a pencil. At this moment eight years ago, his daughter Meghan was drinking Shirley Temples, and his youngest son, Jimmy, was a little kid playing and dancing around the room. Now Meghan is old enough to have champagne. And Jimmy is a Marine fighting in Iraq.