Endorsements, guile and luck led to McCain’s political resurrection

Soon after Republicans suffered landslide congressional defeats in November 2006, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) reportedly told a group of conservatives, “In the words of Chairman Mao, it’s always darkest before it’s totally black.”

Eight months later, McCain’s presidential campaign seemed to go totally black. And few thought it could be revived.

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The summer of 2007 was not a pleasant time for McCain, with Iraq viewed as a disaster in the minds of most independent voters and conservatives revolting because of what they perceived as the senator’s embrace of amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Shortly after McCain’s poll numbers started to dip from those issues, and after former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani got in the race, the campaign revealed in the early summer that it was nearly broke despite having raised more than $20 million.

That revelation was followed almost immediately by a massive staff shake-up, with some of McCain’s closest advisers — including longtime confidant John Weaver — and almost his entire communications staff leaving the campaign behind campaign manager and former Bush guru Terry Nelson.

Former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a longtime McCain ally, said that when it looked like the bottom fell out over the summer, he rallied a group of McCain supporters in Washington.

Lott told The Hill that the meeting was far from a “celebration,” but the group resolved to stay with McCain.

“I said, ‘Look, just relax,’ ” Lott said. “ ‘If we can come up with a million, million and a half [dollars] a month to keep him afloat, he’ll come out of this by October.’ ”

 One senior staff member who left during the summer implosion told The Hill Wednesday that when the campaign aides left, there was a general acknowledgement that “if the stars lined up correctly,” it wasn’t “beyond the realm of possibility” that McCain could come back.

“We gave it about a 5 percent chance,” the former staffer said. “You had some days there in July where it appeared that if you waited an hour, the campaign could be over.”

At the time, sources said the senior staff left because adviser Rick Davis had the ear of the senator despite their contention that he was the architect of a $100 million campaign that was operating with $2 million cash on hand.

It was Davis and McCain, however, who pledged to stay in the race as the media pack following McCain disappeared and he went on the road by himself, carrying his own bags and flying coach to New Hampshire.

 The trail to resurrection went through New Hampshire, the state McCain won handily in 2000 and where he would hold 100 town hall meetings by the end of 2007.

“McCain went back to the basics, the blocking and tackling of connecting with voters,” veteran GOP strategist Scott Reed said Wednesday.

But the political obituaries had been written, and McCain’s poll numbers fell behind those of Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.), who had yet to enter the race. In late August and early September, the senator’s poll numbers were hovering around 12 percent while Romney moved into the high 20s and low 30s.

By late summer, the issue of immigration no longer dominated the headlines, and by fall the perception took hold that the Iraq surge was working.

McCain’s slow and steady rise back to the top was in full force but still being largely overlooked by a national press corps that had left the senator for dead. The senator pressed on, scoring well in debates along the way as his rivals praised him as a hero.

Heading into late December, McCain’s numbers ticked up, but not by much.

The stars had started to align, though, and the confluence of events that led to a series of victories were falling into place.

Reed and others say that Giuliani’s decision to essentially pull out of New Hampshire in December left the door open there for McCain to begin his comeback in his go-to state.

The senator had been helped along the way by voters’ perception that Thompson had never caught fire and was hard to take seriously as a candidate.

As expected, McCain had a less-than-stellar showing in Iowa, but was helped by Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s triumph over Romney, who had invested heavily in Iowa.

 Following his fourth-place finish in Iowa, McCain persuaded Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to endorse him. Lieberman had vowed he would not formally back a White House hopeful until the general election, but his change of heart helped McCain attract headlines and votes in independent-rich New Hampshire. Days later, the crowd at his New Hampshire victory party was chanting “Mac is back” as McCain won the state, dealing a second loss to Romney.

After New Hampshire and a loss in Michigan — the former governor’s home state — McCain set his sights on the state that ended his bid in 2000 amid nasty campaign warfare and in crushing fashion.

With help from longtime ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Huckabee, who many analysts think has siphoned votes away from Romney throughout, McCain found redemption in the Palmetto State, providing him momentum heading into Florida.

Florida turned into a knock-down, drag-out fight as the campaign between Romney and McCain took a nasty turn. But in the closing days, McCain secured the key endorsements of Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and, more surprisingly, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R).

For perhaps the first time in the last eight years, elements of the GOP establishment were lining up behind McCain.

The GOP primary race is not over as Romney remains a credible threat given his resources and perceived strength on economic issues. However, McCain is in the driver’s seat heading into Super Tuesday.

Reed notes that any number of things could’ve happened to derail the Straight Talk Express. Thompson could have caught fire and won Iowa and South Carolina. Giuliani could have won Michigan and Florida. Romney could have swept the early states.

Both McCain and Davis deserve a lot of credit, Reed said. While the staff and expectations changed over the course of more than a year, McCain’s message did not.

“That’s why campaigns matter,” the former staffer said, adding that McCain came back because he had the confidence “to ride the bus when there was no one else on it.”