WASHINGTON — Republican John McCain will soar or sink in New Hampshire, his best shot at reviving a presidential campaign that went belly up last summer.
A McCain victory in New Hampshire would be the consummate comeback for a comeback specialist, a survivor who weathered more than five years in a Vietnam POW camp, a wrenching congressional scandal and three bouts with aggressive skin cancer.
For rival Mitt Romney, a McCain resurgence would be a searing loss, another second-place finish for a campaign that had anticipated back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire and had spent tens of millions of dollars more than other Republicans.
McCain’s fate is in the hands of independent voters, who helped McCain win New Hampshire when he ran against George W. Bush in 2000.
But this time, McCain has competition for the independent vote from Democrat Barack Obama, who defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton last week in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. New Hampshire’s independents, who at 45 percent represent the biggest share of the electorate, are allowed to vote in either party primary. Polls have shown tremendous support for Obama among independents.
Once considered the favorite in a multi-candidate field, McCain capsized last year, his campaign plummeting as he defended a plan to give illegal immigrants an eventual path to citizenship, angering a GOP conservative base that had never fully trusted the maverick senator, especially after he broke with President Bush on tax cuts. A raft of senior aides abandoned ship, and more were laid off as McCain ran out of money.
Romney moved ahead in polling in New Hampshire, where as a former Massachusetts governor he was a neighbor, even an expatriate, considering he has a lakeside vacation home in New Hampshire.
Then, a confluence of events helped to stabilize McCain. Support began to slowly but steadily erode for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who attracts the same independent-minded Republicans as McCain.
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson faded after his late entry into the race. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee surged in Iowa, pulling conservatives away from Romney, whose Mormonism drew suspicion from the party’s evangelical Christian base.
The immigration drumbeat began to subside as attention turned to other issues, and the unpopular war in Iraq seemed to be turning around, a development Republicans credited to President Bush’s troop surge, a strategy long advocated by McCain.
In recent weeks, McCain shot ahead of Giuliani and finally Romney in polls in New Hampshire, the site of McCain’s biggest victory in 2000.
The outcome in New Hampshire could change the dynamic of the remarkably fluid, crowded field as Republican voters keep looking for a single consensus conservative candidate. New Hampshire positions McCain — or Romney — to claim the mantle of mainstream, smaller-government Republican and to go on to challenge socially conservative Huckabee, if he gains momentum, for the heart and soul of the GOP.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Libby Quaid covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.