NASHUA, N.H. — John McCain rode the Straight Talk Express straight into first place in New Hampshire, and back into the thick of the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
"I hate to use the word kid, but I think we showed the people of this country what a real comeback looks like," the Arizona senator told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday, savoring victory in the state he won eight years ago during his first White House bid.
"I'm grateful to the people of New Hampshire. I'm committed to keeping this country safe, and we're going to move on to Michigan and South Carolina and win the nomination," he added.
It was, indeed, a stunning comeback for the four-term senator who went from presumed front-runner a year ago to seemingly finished last summer after his campaign all but imploded. McCain not only stayed alive, but now heads into the next contest Jan. 15 in Michigan with momentum and the potential to raise much-need money.
His triumph here sets up a high-stakes rematch with Mitt Romney in Michigan. McCain won it in 2000 and still has support there; Romney was reared in the state and is the son of a former governor. Mike Huckabee is polling strongly but is focusing more on next-up states. No one else plans to aggressively compete in Michigan, where economic issues will dominate and independents can vote in either party's primary.
From there, McCain is angling for victory in South Carolina, where Romney and Huckabee await and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson hopes to stage a rebound of his own. McCain, who lost a bitter primary to Bush in 2000, lags in polls in the military-heavy state but hopes his Vietnam prisoner of war biography, decades of experience on defense issues and staunch support of the Iraq war will outweigh Republicans' deeply held anger about his position on immigration as well as their doubts about his loyalty to the GOP.
"Tonight's results will show that we took a majority of all sections of the party, and we can do it again," McCain told the AP in a telephone interview from the hotel suite where he awaited results.
Later, McCain told cheering supporters at a victory celebration, "However this campaign turns out _ and I am more confident tonight that it will turn out much better than once expected _ I am grateful beyond expression that I might serve here a while longer."
"Tonight we have taken a step, but only a first step toward repairing the broken politics of the past and restoring the trust of the American people in their government," he said.
Downstairs, when McCain's name flashed across TVs as the winner, hundreds of backers chanted "Mac Is Back" _ the campaign's latest slogan. The location for McCain's primary night party was fitting _ the same ballroom in the same Crowne Plaza hotel where he celebrated victory once before.
Since Labor Day and out of necessity, McCain spent most of his time and nearly all of his money _ what little there was _ in New Hampshire to right a campaign crippled by staff departures and money woes. He sought to out-campaign his opponents with his freewheeling town-hall style events that encouraged back-and-forth dialogue with residents; he held 101.
Age 71, he traveled on his "Straight Talk Express" bus, a holdover from his first campaign, to all corners of the state arguing that he alone is best prepared to take on the threat of terrorism and restore trust in government, while countering Romney's criticism that he was wrong on immigration and taxes. McCain earned the endorsement of more than two dozen New Hampshire newspapers, including the state's largest, the New Hampshire Union Leader.
Outside events also broke in his favor.
The troop increase strategy he had long advocated helped curb violence in Iraq. After the comprehensive immigration bill he co-authored, which angered conservatives, died in Congress, McCain started telling voters he had gotten the message to "secure the borders first."
At the same time, the nomination race grew even more fluid with no clear front-runner. Huckabee rose and eventually defeated Romney in Iowa. In New Hampshire, Rudy Giuliani faded after dumping more than $2.5 million in TV, radio and direct mail into the state. He's pinning his hopes on delegate-rich Florida on Jan. 29. Thompson was never a factor here.
McCain drew his votes from across the political spectrum, according to exit polls conducted for the AP and the television networks. Independents who can vote in either primary helped lift him to victory again. He also led all Republicans with four in 10 of their votes, and had a healthy lead among moderates. Romney had the advantage among conservatives.
Republicans viewed McCain as their most electable candidate, and he had a huge advantage among GOP voters seeking a candidate who says what he believes. McCain also had an edge with those who most value experience, while his chief rival, Romney, led among those wanting a candidate who shares their values. Romney also was seen as having run the most negative GOP campaign.
McCain's triumph capped a remarkable turnaround.
After losing to Bush in 2000, he spent years preparing for his second chance and opened it with a flourish. But the appearance of invincibility quickly shattered.
Infighting rocked the campaign. Money was being spent faster than it came in, and finger-pointing ensued. Externally, Iraq and immigration took a political toll.
His standing in polls dropped and fundraising dried up.
By summer, the campaign had blown through nearly all the $25 million it had raised, and McCain had accepted the resignations of two top aides.
His candidacy in tatters, McCain laid low in August. He worked to stabilize his campaign's finances and sought to map out a road ahead with a narrower strategy, hoping he could still emerge as the last man standing if the GOP field remained fractured.
New Hampshire was the obvious answer.