DALLAS — Eight years after his first bid for the White House ended in a painful defeat and nine months after his second appeared to have sputtered to an embarrassing end, John McCain capped a spectacular political comeback Tuesday with a four-state sweep that clinched the Republican presidential nomination.
Victories in the Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont primaries put McCain, the presumptive nominee for weeks, officially over the top in the number of delegates needed to win the nomination. His one remaining significant opponent, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, dropped out and said he'd do "whatever he can" to help the Arizona senator.
McCain now turns his focus to unifying and inspiring his party, raising money and honing a general-election campaign theme. He has the luxury of doing all that as the Democrats continue their lengthy tussle for a nominee.
"Now we begin the most important part of our campaign: to make a respectful, determined and convincing case to the American people that our campaign and my election as president, given the alternatives presented by our friends in the other party, are in the best interests of the country we love," McCain said.
McCain is to fly to Washington Wednesday morning, where he'll have lunch with President Bush in the White House. Afterward, they'll make a joint appearance in the Rose Garden, where McCain will receive the endorsement of the man who vanquished him eight years ago in a bitter race.
At McCain's election-night party in a hotel ballroom here, a poster was unveiled with the number "1,191," the number of delegates needed for the nomination and a signal that, at long last, it was McCain's night.
"I want to thank all of you here, and all the Republicans, independents and independent-thinking Democrats in all parts of this great country who supported our campaign for the nomination and have brought us across the finish line first — an accomplishment that once seemed to more than a few doubters unlikely," McCain told a ballroom of screaming supporters, a grin flashing on his face.
It was supposed to be a lot easier: McCain began his 2008 campaign as the GOP front-runner. But his campaign fell apart last summer amid unrealistic fundraising expectations that were never met, a clash with his party's base on immigration changes and an unpopular war in Iraq that McCain never wavered from supporting, even when it wasn't clear whether the controversial troop surge that McCain championed would succeed.
With virtually no paid staff and little money, McCain retreated to New Hampshire, the site of the campaign's first primary and of his greatest triumph in 2000, to embrace the retail campaigning that he loves best and that Granite State voters expect. McCain conducted 101 town hall meetings there, plus countless roadside meet-and-greets. His skeletal campaign team called it "living off the land."
"He worked the hell out of New Hampshire," said Mark Salter, a McCain strategist. "Not everything is kismet. He worked New Hampshire like he knew he could. ...They get him there."
Nevertheless, it seems as though kismet, or fate, played a role.
The risky, last-ditch strategy required virtually everything beyond McCain's control to break his way: Immigration had to fade as an issue after the comprehensive overhaul bill he championed died. The troop surge in Iraq had to produce some success to make McCain look both principled and prescient. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, an early leader in the polls, had to pull out of New Hampshire, a state tailor-made for his brand of moderate Republicanism.
Huckabee had to emerge in Iowa to take out former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. A weakened, distracted Romney had to be ripe for a loss in New Hampshire at the hands of McCain. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, considered the conservatives' savior, had to fizzle out but stay in the race long enough to take enough conservative votes from Huckabee in South Carolina to give McCain a win in that state's key primary.
It all happened.
Major victories on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, put McCain in command. It was only a matter of time before he won enough delegates over his only remaining opponents, Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
He previewed the upcoming campaign against the Democrats in his speech, drawing sharp distinctions with them on trade and taxes, and he vowed to bring more international cooperation in Afghanistan and to end U.S. dependence on foreign oil. He defended the war in Iraq, saying "our most vital security interests are clearly involved there."
"The next president must explain how he or she intends to bring that war to the swiftest possible conclusion without exacerbating a sectarian conflict that could quickly descend into genocide; destabilizing the entire Middle East; enabling our adversaries in the region to extend their influence and undermine our security there; and emboldening terrorists to attack us elsewhere with weapons we dare not allow them to possess," McCain said.
Salter said the McCain staple, the come-one, come-all town hall meeting, will be part of the general election campaign.
"He'll campaign all over the country in formats that work for him that show respect for the American people," Salter said. "Voters don't just want to be talked to, they want to be listened to. And sometimes debated."