Rich Lowry

The famously superstitious John McCain carries a lucky nickel. It apparently has been working its magic.

Since McCain impaled his campaign in the summer on the issue of "comprehensive" immigration reform, everything has broken his way. He was ignored by the other candidates for months, except when they said generous things about the old, seemingly irrelevant war hero during debates. His favorable ratings, which had plummeted, steadily climbed.

By the time anyone was paying attention to him again, he was on the rise in New Hampshire. His main competition there, Mitt Romney, got shellacked in Iowa by Mike Huckabee and had only five days to recover. McCain had a clear path to the nomination almost before anyone noticed.

He wouldn't have traveled so far down that path without the help of Rudy Giuliani. It's as if McCain made it into Giuliani's circle of loyalists, and Hizzoner did all he could to help him in keeping with his self-sacrificing code of omerta. By late last year, the Republican race had split into dual competitions: McCain versus Giuliani for moderate and national-security voters, and Huckabee versus Romney for conservatives and evangelicals.

McCain won his competition in a romp. Giuliani fled the early states, leaving McCain to soak up all his voters in New Hampshire, which surely was his margin of victory there. By the time the showdown in Florida came, McCain was flush with his early victories, and Giuliani was a pathetic remnant of his former self. His most prized parting gift to McCain wasn't his Reagan Library endorsement, but the Northeastern Feb. 5 states his forces changed to winner-take-all contests. They could now give McCain 17 percent of the delegates he needs for the nomination.

Romney, meanwhile, stumbled in his fight with Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor took a chunk of the evangelical vote everywhere. He relished slamming Romney -- too slick and too rich for his taste -- and developed an ever-deeper man-crush on McCain. Even now, with his campaign effectively over (he won a mere 6 percent of the nonevangelical vote in Florida), Huckabee lives on to take delegates from Romney on Feb. 5.

Republicans notoriously tend to pick the candidate who is next in line. A 21-year Senate veteran who had run once before, McCain was emphatically next, and it's almost as if the other candidates couldn't help but follow a migratory instinct to make him the front-runner. Huckabee kneecapped Romney in Iowa, and when he rose up himself to become a threat to McCain in South Carolina, Fred Thompson kneecapped him in turn (while barely ever saying a discouraging word about McCain). Romney was the only one to attack McCain robustly, but quit negative TV advertising after New Hampshire and could overcome him only in Michigan.

That was enough for McCain to forge a tenuous path toward the nomination: He lost self-identified Republicans by 1 point in New Hampshire; lost self-identified Republicans by 14 points in Michigan; and tied among self-identified Republicans in South Carolina and Florida. In other words, McCain is close to the presumptive GOP nominee without yet having won self-identified Republican voters in any primary -- a bizarre, and perhaps unprecedented, circumstance.

The typical strategy for winning the Republican nomination is the inside-out one pursued by Romney. Win the conservative base, then build out from there. McCain worked his coalition from the outside in. He had a lock on the moderate and liberal vote, then worked to win enough conservatives to inch over the top. He lost the 21 percent to 33 percent of voters in the early states who say they are "very conservative" by overwhelming margins. The battleground was the 32 percent to 35 percent of voters who are "somewhat conservative." McCain won them (barely) every place but Michigan.

It's hard to imagine a less likely path to the nomination. McCain's tenacity and indelible image as a truth-telling maverick have been indispensable, but so have the other candidates and -- yes -- the political stars. Keep rubbing the lucky nickel, Senator.


Rich Lowry

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years .
 
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