In July, it hardly could have been imagined. The poll numbers were hideous, the campaign fundraising anemic. Many of the pundits said they couldn't imagine how John McCain, looking all his 71 years, could recover. His campaign staff had to be cut so severely -- from 140 to 22 -- that, one aide recalled, "it was like a neutron bomb went off."
Those days seemed a distant memory Tuesday night, as McCain strode into a hotel ballroom swimming with tiny American flags. He grinned as "Johnny B. Goode" blared from the public-address system, and asserted himself to be pretty close to the Comeback Kid.
"When the pundits declared us finished, I said, 'I am going to New Hampshire, where the voters don't let you make their decision for them,' " a beaming McCain said to a roar of approval. "They said: 'How are you going to do it? You are down in the polls; you don't have the money.' And I told them, 'I am going to New Hampshire and I am going to tell them the truth.' "
That brought another roar from a crowd of hundreds, which repeatedly chanted "Mac is back! Mac is back!" and "John McCain, John McCain!"
The comeback began in earnest in September, when McCain launched a "No Surrender" bus tour across Iowa and New Hampshire.
By the time he arrived in New Hampshire on Thursday, a slight breeze had turned into a full wind in McCain's sails. With crowds swelling and allies from his 2000 presidential race returning, the candidate began comparing himself to Lazarus, saying that he was capturing "lightning in a bottle."
McCain took the stage just after 9 p.m. EST Thursday and thanked New Hampshire, scene of his victory over then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, as a state "we have come to trust and love."
Gone was the wisecracking, self-deprecating and blunt candidate of recent days. McCain would receive his first campaign victory on the national stage in eight years with a presidential air. He said he was "grateful beyond expression by the prospect that I might serve . . . a little while longer."
"I learned long ago that serving only oneself was a petty and unsatisfying ambition," he added. "But serve a cause greater than self-interest, and you will know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of fame and fortune. For me, that greater cause has always been my country."
Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this story.