NASHUA, N.H. — Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign went from being the toast of the Republican field early in campaign 2008 to just plain toast — but Tuesday night he was back in the winner's circle, beaming like a "comeback kid."
Last summer, overspending, infighting among top aides and single-digit poll numbers had the Arizona senator's campaign reeling and pundits predicting his exit from the race long before the first ballots were cast.
Tuesday night, exuberant McCain supporters shouted "Mac is back!" "Mac is back!" in a raucous hotel ballroom after McCain rolled over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for a solid win.
"I'm past the age when I can claim that I'm a kid, no matter what adjective precedes it," McCain said after bounding onto the ballroom platform to the theme of "Rocky." "But tonight, we sure showed 'em what a comeback looks like."
Romney comes from a neighboring state and has a lakefront vacation home in New Hampshire, but the Granite State once again proved to be McCain Country, as it was when he won a famous victory over George W. Bush in 2000.
After firing staff members and streamlining his campaign to run on "spit, glue and no money," according to senior McCain adviser Mark McKinnon, McCain returned to the "Straight Talk Express" formula that helped him curry favor with the media and independent-minded New Hampshire voters eight years ago. McKinnon's comments came on Fox News.
This fall and winter McCain held more than 100 town hall meetings, letting some run until every question was answered. In ads and at almost every campaign stop, McCain reminded voters of the love they showed him eight years ago and implored them to do it again.
"This campaign had heart, it had people who were with him here since 2000 — Mac is back!" shouted Tracy Benders, a 43-year-old campaign volunteer from Coventry, Conn., after Fox News declared McCain the winner Tuesday night. "This is freaking awesome! He just loves New Hampshire and New Hampshire loves him. Maybe he'll buy a vacation home here."
His campaign reinvigorated, McCain is gearing up for primaries that could be more negative than the contest was in New Hampshire, where he and Romney traded verbal jabs and negative ads. McCain officials announced Tuesday that they've set up a "truth squad" operation in South Carolina to counter negative claims by McCain's GOP rivals. McCain's campaign effectively ended in South Carolina in 2000 under a wave of attacks and whispered allegations by Bush campaign surrogates.
"I think we're ready for South Carolina," said Steve Schmidt, McCain's campaign spokesman. "Our finances are good, and we have the resources to compete in Michigan and South Carolina."