PHOENIX, Ariz. — Here at home came the sweetest — and biggest — win of all in John McCain's improbable political comeback.
Victorious across the country, blowing open a likely insurmountable lead in delegates, vanquishing the despised Mitt Romney, finally sensing within his grasp the elusive prize he's sought for nearly a decade.
McCain entered the ballroom in the posh Biltmore Hotel here, a few miles from his condo, to the theme from "Rocky" — a nod to the scrappy presidential bid he cobbled together with commercial flights and unpaid staff after it all went south last summer.
"Although I've never minded the role of the underdog and have relished as much as anyone come-from-behind wins, tonight I think we must get used to the fact that we are the Republican Party front-runner in..."
The rest of his words were lost as the hometown crowd roared its approval, McCain beaming out over waving signs.
"And I don't really mind it one bit," McCain added as the crowd quieted.
Then McCain, ever the stoic, got as close as he can to misty as he thanked those present, many of whom had embraced the newcomer in his first run for Congress 26 years ago.
"I was over 40 years old before I could claim a hometown, and I cannot express how fortunate I feel to have found a home in this beautiful state that has meant so much to me," McCain said.
There's a joke McCain frequently tells on the campaign trail; that after the desultory presidential-campaign experiences of Barry Goldwater in 1964, Mo Udall in 1976, Bruce Babbitt in 1988 and McCain himself in 2000, Arizona may be the "only state in America where mothers don't tell their children they could grow up to be president."
Not Tuesday night. A dash of the cocky Navy fighter pilot surfaced in McCain's mischievous grin as he considered the real possibility that he could do what the others — including his two beloved mentors, Goldwater and Udall — could not.
"I think it is fair to say that we might have come a little closer to the day when mothers in Arizona might be able to tell their children that someday they could grow up to be president," he said, and once more the crowd roared its pride.
McCain then turned serious, speaking of his life of service and listing his Republican bona fides, a clear response to the hardcore conservatives who distrust him.
And he closed with a call to arms to America that could well have been a coda for his own unlikely campaign.
"Nothing in America is inevitable," McCain said. "We are the captains of our fate. We can overcome any challenge as long as we keep our courage and stand by our principles."
More cheers, amid Bon Jovi's "Who Says You Can't Go Home?," then upstairs to a suite to bask with friends and family in a victory that seemed improbable just a few months ago to all but the man enjoying it most.