by Paul West
WASHINGTON--This strangest of Christmas weeks - when presidential candidates are asking last-minute shoppers for last-minute support - has bestowed an embarrassment of riches on John McCain.
The upshot: his chances of winning the Republican nomination, which once seemed all but gone, are glowing brighter at exactly the right time.
The Union Leader in Manchester, N.H., an influential conservative voice, gave McCain its endorsement, which could reassure Republicans who still wonder if he's truly one of their own. Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, delivered his support, bolstering McCain's image for bipartisanship.
His rivals in the Republican presidential contest have been unusually generous. Take Mike Huckabee. The fast-rising Republican contender starts to gush when he talks about McCain.
"I think he's one of the most honorable individuals in this nation. I personally like him. I also professionally respect him," Huckabee said on CNN last weekend. "You won't ever hear me saying something unkind or untoward toward this person who I believe to be a great American hero."
It's what Huckabee is doing on the ground in Iowa, though, that could deliver the most tangible gift. His surge has pushed Mitt Romney down to second place. If Huckabee holds on, it would reshape the Republican contest and give McCain's candidacy new life, even though McCain figures to finish far back on caucus night.
Romney is counting on an Iowa victory to help sew up New Hampshire, which holds its primary just five days later. But Andrew Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire's independent polling unit, says that "if Romney loses in Iowa, I think McCain could very easily be the winner here."
Iowa's caucuses historically exert a strong pull on New Hampshire. "If you lose Iowa, you get penalized," says Smith. After his Iowa defeat in 2004, Howard Dean plummeted 18 points in one day in New Hampshire polling.
Huckabee isn't the only Republican who is helping McCain. Rudy Giuliani has been giving his all to put McCain back in contention, though not on purpose.
The more money and time the former New York mayor spent in New Hampshire, the worse he seems to have done. Giuliani is running "a terrible campaign" that has succeeded mainly in turning off voters, according to Smith.
As moderate Republicans and independents peel away from Giuliani, many are turning to McCain. The senator has climbed into second place, and Romney's lead in New Hampshire has all but disappeared.
McCain was just three percentage points behind in a new Boston Globe survey, in the paper's Sunday editions.
For the first time in a long time, his rivals are wondering if McCain could end up as the nominee.
Romney, who launched the first negative ads of the '08 campaign against Huckabee, opened a new front late last week against McCain, criticizing the senator over his positions on taxes.
A come-from-behind revival in New Hampshire was not McCain's original plan. With everything riding on that state, it would be lights out if he doesn't win there, his campaign manager, Rick Davis, has all but acknowledged.
The precariousness of McCain's position was underscored late last week, when the senator was forced to admit that he was fighting unconfirmed allegations that he did favors for a Washington lobbyist or her clients, which were the subject of questions from New York Times reporters.
Most voters in New Hampshire aren't expected to make up their mind until the final week before the Jan. 8 primary, leaving McCain at the mercy of events, or last-minute revelations.
That's a big change from where he started out, a year ago, when he was the early favorite for the nomination. Last December, McCain played host at a glittering holiday reception in a soaring marble hall close to the White House, an event with the unmistakable air of a pre-inaugural celebration.
His attempt to portray himself as the inevitable nominee, which grew out of losing to George W. Bush in the 2000 primaries, was part of a long-term strategy to position McCain as the establishment candidate, as Bush was back then.
McCain threw himself into supporting Bush's re-election and became the leading voice in support of the Iraq war. With an eye toward primary voters, he shifted some long-held positions, becoming, for instance, a tax-cutting proponent after having voted against Bush's cuts.
But McCain's early strategy backfired, in part because it undermined his greatest asset, a reputation for independent thinking. By last summer, he'd blown through $25 million in campaign money with little to show for it.
Far down in the polls and effectively broke, he jettisoned most of his national campaign staff. McCain and others blamed his fall primarily on his outspoken support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul, which put him sharply at odds with Republican primary voters (and still does). Then, out of options, he went back to the straight-talk style of campaigning in New Hampshire that helped him defeat Bush eight years ago in the primary there.
By last week, McCain was talking up his chances in the state, while admitting it could be just "wishful thinking." If McCain makes it all the way to the nomination, he would replicate what John Kerry did four years ago. After mortgaging his Beacon Hill townhouse to fund a cash-short campaign, Kerry capitalized on party infighting to go from the back of the field to the nomination in a matter of a few weeks.
These days, McCain points to national polling to make the case that he's the most electable Republican, appealing to the pragmatism of voters in New Hampshire. If he wins there, he'll try to follow up with a strong showing the next week in Michigan, where Romney could be making a last stand, and South Carolina, where he's counting on backing from military veterans to counter Huckabee's strength among social and religious conservatives.
At his age, it would be a stretch for a 71-year-old senator to call himself the comeback kid. But if everything breaks his way, he could be.
His timing and good luck would have to hold up for at least six weeks after New Hampshire, a tall order. His best hope might be a showdown in the big round of Feb. 5 primaries with another underfunded candidate, Huckabee, who could conceivably wind up as his running mate if a McCain miracle were to happen.