McCain at his best with back against wall

John McCain has weathered plenty of political hurricanes in his life, mustering a resolve more fierce than the turbulence that surrounds him to become the last man standing. He can do it again.

Storms bring out the best in McCain, a man far more comfortable fighting off defeat than closing in on victory. This time the storm is of his own making — he has invited an enormous distraction by gambling on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. In choosing someone without the experience to take over the presidency McCain has stepped on his message of Barack Obama’s inexperience, stepped on his message of “Country First” and stepped on his own nominating convention.

Until Obama’s staggering acceptance speech last week McCain had defied the odds and closed the presidential race to a dead heat in a year when all the issues and polling favor the Democrats. He managed to keep it close in the polls all summer, even while some conservative Republicans continued to harbor a longstanding lack of trust in McCain that in many cases still borders on contempt. McCain, who at 72 would become the oldest president in American history, did so by sowing doubts among voters about the untested and unknown Obama. Despite the enthusiasm Obama has enjoyed, his phenomenal fundraising, and more than 80 percent of voters believing the nation is on the wrong track, McCain made the campaign a referendum on Obama and it worked.

There were other powerful forces and factors at play. McCain was right about the surge in Iraq that stabilized the country, reduced violence and changed the debate. Obama limped across the finish line after a bitter primary battle that left millions of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) voters angry at him. Democrats couldn’t mobilize Latinos against McCain the way they could have against Mitt Romney and other Republicans who talked tough on immigration during the GOP primary.

Now McCain has bestowed upon the base of his party the greatest possible gift in Palin – the kind of social conservative who social conservatives had only dreamed could one day inherit the party from the unpredictable maverick they had battled with for years. Palin will no doubt deliver the base for McCain in November. Then McCain will have to win the middle as well. Will independent voters see his last-minute decision and inadequate vetting of Palin as cynical and political, not principled and patriotic? Or will they see her as McCain’s maverick, reformist kin? Will Hillary’s voters see a chance to break the glass ceiling after all, or a ticket that opposes their policy priorities?

Nobody knows what’s coming — perhaps a tidal wave. But McCain has beaten back plenty of high water this year already, and he just might be closing in on unlikely victory again.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.