McCain Won Nomination By Being Himself

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republicans lugged money, fame and promise into their race for the presidential nomination. One of them carried his own bags, tooled around New Hampshire with a few volunteers, flew commercial and won.

John McCain's diet of humble pie in the summer of 2007 might have been the best thing that happened to his campaign.

That and the implosion of a succession of rivals who entered the campaign surrounded by sky-high expectations.

Once, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was thought to be the man to beat.

He was the man of steel and compassion on Sept. 11, 2001, and the frightening days after. While his GOP primary rivals roamed the electoral landscape, he staked everything on a Florida blowout, and waited for them - and waited and waited - like a swamp thing preparing to strike.

McCain beat him in Florida and Giuliani was out of the race the next day. Later, alligator.

Then there was Fred Thompson. With his actor's sense of timing, he waited in the wings, drama mounting, then made his entrance - and soon poofed. Exit stage right. Social conservatives were drawn to him, but he did not show them fire in his belly.

Mitt Romney poured $40 million of his own fortune and his reputation as can-do businessman and did-do Massachusetts governor into the contest. Defeated in the two opening states - Iowa and New Hampshire - his luster dimmed.

And Mike Huckabee? The Baptist preacher with the engaging homespun wit scored a surprising victory in Iowa and followed up with more strong showings thanks to evangelical support. "I didn't major in math, I majored in miracles," he liked to say, when asked about the delegate count mounting in McCain's favor.

Finally the numbers crunched his hopes.

As the earliest perceived front-runner, McCain saw an elaborate organization grow around him, populated by some of the George W. Bush operatives he had faced as rivals in 2000. He wore the structure like a fancy, ill-fitting suit.

And as the money dwindled, he could no longer afford to keep it.

Just over a year ago, McCain was laying off more than 50 campaign workers, cutting pay and seeing his poll numbers mired in single digits in some of the big early states.

The Iraq war he supported had been going badly and he obstinately was sticking to his position. Social conservatives, masterful organizers, were not sold on him.

By necessity as well as by nature, McCain was meeting small groups of voters and standing out easily as the most accessible of the major candidates in either party.

You could edge up to him at a New Hampshire bar and shoot the breeze. He flew Southwest, without an entourage.

"He was just sort of fatalistic about it," his friend Ollie Harper recalled of that time. "He'd work as hard as he could and harder than anybody else and that would either see it through or not. He put his whole campaign on his shoulder."

Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who has known the Arizona senator for 25 years, said the crisis was oddly liberating.

"All he could do was go up to New Hampshire and be John McCain," he said. "It was a streak of good fortune that he ran out of money and went up there and was himself. That's what people love - that he is himself, not some sort of synthetic character trying to figure out who he is."

McCain's New Hampshire victory put him back in the thick of the competition. But given the state's occasional history of bucking political trends, his performance was taken with a grain of salt.

Eleven days later, he triumphed in the South Carolina primary, a state where bare-knuckle politicking and dark innuendo dashed his insurgency against Bush in 2000. He already had been a favorite of newspaper editorial pages. Now the political endorsements were growing.

Florida sealed his political resurrection and a week later, Romney suspended his campaign, leaving the way clear for McCain over his nominal remaining opposition. In early March, McCain sewed up the nomination and turned his efforts against the Democrats as their contest dragged on.

Back came the fancy suit of party organization that had constrained him the first time around. Is it again?

"The middle seat on Southwest gave me a lot more opportunity to interact with voters," he allowed in an interview with The Associated Press. "I'm not complaining. Still have town hall meetings. Still able to do 95 percent of what I did before."

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