Yet here he stands this week, with the Democrats in their own peculiar purgatory of paralysis, and him with a chance to reintroduce himself without the clutter of actually having a political opponent at the moment.
His trip highlighting important sites in his background started in Mississippi on Monday, near the airfield named for his grandfather, and continues Tuesday in Alexandria, Va., at the high-school he attended (and where the would-be oldest president picked up the nickname "Punk.")
The tour is bringing his memoir to life (and television visuals), per ABC's Bret Hovell. "For those members of the general electorate who have not read Faith of my Fathers, Sen. John McCain's bestselling memoir, worry not -- the presumptive Republican nominee has delivered a speech for you," Hovell writes.
In his tour, "he will highlight formative experiences in his upbringing, and how they have shaped his character and political experience. Monday's speech, focusing on his family, touched on many of the themes of his standard stump speech through that prism."
"Aides hope the week-long trip will cement in the public's mind McCain's personal history and his military service," Michael Shear writes in The Washington Post. "The tour will end Saturday with a rally in Arizona on the courthouse steps where then-Sen. Barry Goldwater announced his presidential bid in 1964."
Said McCain, on "GMA": "I'm not running on the Bush presidency. I'm running on my own service to the country, my own record in the House of Representatives and the United States Senate, and my vision for the future."
McCain on Tuesday will call for expanded school vouchers and merit pay for teachers, and will endorse retention of the No Child Left Behind Act.
This on the legend that is his temper: "As a young man, I would respond aggressively and sometimes irresponsibly to anyone whom I perceived to have questioned my sense of honor and self-respect. Those responses often got me in a fair amount of trouble earlier in life," McCain plans to say, per excerpts released by his campaign.
"In all candor, as an adult I've been known to forget occasionally the discretion expected of a person of my years and station when I believe I've been accorded a lack of respect I did not deserve. Self-improvement should be a work in progress all our lives, and I confess to needing it as much as anyone. But I believe if my detractors had known me at Episcopal they might marvel at the self-restraint and mellowness I developed as an adult. Or perhaps they wouldn't quite see it that way."
McCain caps his April Fools Day with an appearance on Letterman Tuesday night, with Clinton scheduled to hit Leno on Thursday.
McCain's fund-raising -- while still lagging -- is picking up. McCain "has moved to transform his ragtag primary campaign into a general-election operation by boosting fundraising, establishing control over the Republican National Committee, and beginning a conversation with voters who live in states where he has not campaigned," Michael Shear and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post.
And McCain is enjoying the full-throated backing (at least for now) of congressional leaders whom he's never been particularly close to.