A year ago, he was the odds-on favorite to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. Today, he's considered a long shot.
His campaign has rebounded from a near implosion in the summer, but in these crucial weeks before the first balloting in January in Iowa, John McCain has been eclipsed by the emergence of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as a serious contender, the Mitt Romney religion speech and recent Romney-Rudy Giuliani verbal fracas.
Yet political analysts say do not count the Arizona senator out yet.
Down, but Not Out
"The reality is, as it's been for many, many months is that the [Republican] candidates all have weaknesses and at the end of the day John McCain is hoping that Republican voters take a deep breath, reassess the candidate and say it's not about a specific position on immigration or campaign finance reform, it's about strength and leadership and toughness in standing up in the war against terror," said Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report.
"If that's how Republicans decide, they may come back to him and decide 'Well, I rejected him six months ago, but he looks like the best of the lot now.'"
It will not be easy for McCain to pull off, but there are scenarios — for McCain a "perfect storm" of events breaking his way, according to some pundits — in which he could still wrest the GOP nomination away from his rivals.
One of them goes something like this:
Huckabee wins the Iowa caucus Jan. 3 and Romney finishes second. McCain is running far behind in Iowa and barely campaigning there.
A Romney win could propel him to victory in New Hampshire where he now leads McCain in the polls, so, for McCain, it is critical that Romney be stopped in Iowa. A Huckabee win in Iowa would be a huge setback for Romney, who has invested time and money — lots of money — into winning there followed by New Hampshire for an early one-two punch that would ignite his campaign.
Meanwhile, McCain has been concentrating instead on New Hampshire, which holds the first primary five days after Iowa.
Eye on New Hampshire
He spent most of the last week in New Hampshire and is now running a television commercial (on New England sports channels) featuring Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling pitching McCain as "a man of principle who sticks to his guns."
Schilling may not exactly be the most popular guy on his team nationally, but among New England sports fans he's the heroic figure who helped pitch the Sox to victory in the now legendary curse-busting 2004 World Series.
A Romney loss in Iowa could open the door in New Hampshire for McCain. He and the Granite State have a "relationship" that goes back to 2000 when he stunned George W. Bush in the GOP primary and won by 19 points.
McCain remains popular there, admired even by some voters who have drifted away this year to Romney or Giuliani. He draws large, enthusiastic crowds to his campaign events, and recently won the key endorsement of the state's newspaper, the New Hampshire Union-Leader.
While McCain's prominent support of the doomed immigration bill hurts him, he is also the rare Republican to talk about the issue of climate change — a big deal to many in New Hampshire — and the liability of his early support for the troop surge in Iraq has turned into an asset now that it seems to be succeeding.
A McCain win in the New Hampshire primary would be huge. It would spell serious trouble for Romney and slow the Huckabee boom.
McCain would be anointed the latest comeback kid and bask in the glow of renewed media attention and just maybe get a second look by Republican voters.
"It would certainly create a boomlet for him after New Hampshire," Rothenberg said. "It would give him an opportunity to raise more money and get more visibility. … But it's still tough for him. There are still a lot of conservatives who will never support [him] even because of his leadership on immigration, his position on campaign finance reform. There are many Republicans who see him as his time has passed. So, even a strong showing in New Hampshire, it would be a plus, it would certainly help his campaign, but it [would] still be uphill the rest of the way."
To maintain the momentum from a New Hampshire win, McCain would have to do well in the South Carolina primary 11 days later.
In 2000, South Carolina dealt McCain what would turn out to be a fatal setback. But he is decently positioned there this time. He's been campaigning in the state often in recent weeks. He has the backing of South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham.
The Palmetto State has a large number of military retirees, and Democrats and independents can cross over to vote in the Republican primary.
Some Republicans might even be feeling a little guilty about the nasty negative campaign of 2000 in which McCain was the target of planted rumors that he had fathered a black child out of wedlock.
If McCain can prevail in South Carolina — even a close second-place finish might be good enough — the Republican race could be turned upside down. Romney would be down and probably out.
Giuliani would be left still looking for a win after the big three of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Huckabee would be stalled. And former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson would be 0 for 3 and likely reeling. And McCain would be rolling.