won the New Hamsphire Republican primary Thursday, a victory that propels him to the front of the race for his party's nomination and caps a stunning comeback.
The scene at McCain's victory party in Nashua - with supporters cheering "Mac is back!" throughout the evening - would have been considered improbable only a few months ago, a fact McCain acknowledged in addressing supporters.
"My friends, you know, I'm past the age when I can claim the noun 'kid,' no matter what adjective precedes it," said the 71-year-old McCain, "but tonight we sure showed them what a comeback is."
McCain, an Arizona senator, defeated, 37 percent to 32 percent, despite being heavily outspent by Romney, who held large leads in polls as recently as two weeks ago. The victory is McCain's second in New Hampshire, which he won by a wide margin over George W. Bush in 2000.
After McCain's campaign nearly collapsed in mid-2007, he shifted almost all his time and resources to the state, a move that kept him in contention throughout the year, and in the closing weeks, allowed him to surpass Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts.
"I talked to the people of New Hampshire, I reasoned with you, I answered you, sometimes I argued with you," McCain said. "But I always told you the truth as best I can see the truth. And you did me the great honor of listening."
While McCain's victory gives him a significant momentum boost - a loss here would have likely been the end of his campaign - he is by no means the Republican front-runner. Romney's financial resources will allow him to field organizations in later states for some time, and though, winner of Thursday's Iowa caucuses, did not perform well in New Hampshire, he is expected to do much better in states that have large contingents of evangelical Christians and other socially conservative voters.
The McCain campaign is already playing down expectations for South Carolina, saying it doesn't consider the state essential to securing the nomination. Huckabee is expected to do well there.
"I think South Carolina will be a fight," McCain adviser Mark McKinnon said. "It will be a good fight. I don't know if we're going to win South Carolina. I don't think we have to."
McCain's camp, however, is gearing up for a fight in Michigan, which he will visit Wednesday. The state gave McCain a victory in the 2000 primary, but Romney could benefit from being the son of the late Gov. George Romney, who is remembered fondly there.
Also on the horizon is a possible threat from, who has opted to focus on winning large states later in the year, starting with Florida's Jan. 29 primary. Nicolle Wallace, a CBS News political analyst and former Bush administration aide, said both Romney and Giuliani could still halt McCain's progress.
"He's gonna have to show the party that he's got an organization that can do battle with Rudy's war chest and organization and Romney's well-oiled machine," she said. "McCain doesn't have much of a machine to speak of."
McCain's fall over the summer was largely the product of weak fundraising and his support of a comprehensive immigration deal in the Senate that would have provided a path to citizenship for illegal aliens already in the country. However, the bill caused a fierce uproar among Republican voters, who, polls indicate, consider the issue a priority, and McCain's standing in polls dropped rapidly.
The campaign now believes that the result in New Hampshire means the controversy over McCain's views on immigration is behind him. "What they said tonight is they totally accept John McCain's position on immigration," McKinnon said.
McCain, who focused on the issue of combating Islamic terrorism in his victory speech, may have also been aided by an increased focus on foreign policy in the closing weeks of the campaign, said GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio, who pointed to the recent assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
"It refocused the debate at a critical time on John McCain and his foreign policy credentials," he said. "Mike Huckabee doesn't know what's going on, and John McCain certainly has more credentials than Mitt Romney."
While McCain and his supporters were jubilant tonight, there are parallels to his 2000 campaign that are foreboding. That year, McCain largely skipped Iowa and won in New Hampshire. Then he won in Michigan. But his presidential hopes were extinguished with a loss in South Carolina.
That exact sequence of events, polls indicate, could happen this time around. But, so far, McCain's camp isn't concerned about history repeating itself.
"I think eight years ago was eight years ago," said senior adviser Steve Schmidt. "I think that John McCain has learned some lessons from this campaign. It's a totally different time in the history of the country."
By David Miller