John McCain’s recovery is astonishing in so many ways it is hard to know where to begin. He was written off by everybody just months ago, a staff meltdown on his hands and no money to buy his way back up the polls. Money is everything in American politics, right? Romney had it all and McCain was flat broke. He was no textbook conservative, and the Republicans were obviously going to insist on that. He had little or no appeal to the evangelicals, either, yet another disqualifier. And get ready for this: he formed an alliance with Ted Kennedy—Ted Kennedy!—and sponsored an amnesty for illegal immigrants. That measure provoked a national outcry and was killed stone dead in Congress. And this man was running for the Republican nomination? Who was he kidding? Well, he is not quite there yet. Giuliani is gone but Mitt Romney and his checkbook are not giving up. Super-Tuesday is the real test. Nonetheless, winning Florida makes McCain the front-runner, and whatever happens now, that is remarkable in its own right.
How on earth to account for it? It was crucial of course that none of the Republican contenders struck the party as an ideal choice. McCain had his drawbacks, all right—but so did all the others. Fred Thompson was the best the party could come up with for the textbook-conservative heir-to-Reagan slot, and he turned out to be a terrible campaigner who barely even seemed to want the job. I am still puzzled, I have to say, by the stunning failure of the Giuliani campaign. (Maybe one of the clichés of US horse-race politics was correct, after all: momentum acquired in the early primaries, which Giuliani downgraded in his planning, really counts.) At any rate, McCain appeared to command respect in way that Giuliani does not. And nobody could accuse him of being inauthentic, a charge that Romney cannot get away from.
So for all the things they dislike about McCain, Republicans seem to like his character. And above all, of course, they like his electability. They may be a divided party, but they are united on the need to stop the Democrats—and above all, of course, Hillary Clinton—from gaining the White House. McCain could give Hillary a run for her money, and that seems good enough for the conservatives, evangelicals and immigration hard-liners who would find so much to dislike in President McCain. That is something for Democrats to ponder as they weigh the choice between Hillary and Obama.