Don't ever count out John McCain.
By winning New Hampshire on Tuesday, McCain resurrected a campaign left for dead last summer. It was the consummate comeback for a comeback specialist, a survivor who weathered more than five years in a Vietnam POW camp, multiple plane crashes, a wrenching congressional scandal and three bouts with aggressive skin cancer.
For rival Mitt Romney, McCain's resurgence was a searing loss, another second-place finish for a campaign that had anticipated back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire and spent tens of millions of dollars more than other Republicans.
Now McCain has a chance to reshape a remarkably fluid, crowded race for the GOP nomination.
The Arizona senator faces competition for the next contest Jan. 15 in Michigan, where Romney was raised and his father was governor.
However, McCain won there when he ran against George W. Bush in 2000, and if he prevails, McCain can position himself as the consensus candidate Republicans have yearned for — a smaller-government, lower-taxes, strong-on-defense conservative.
"Then McCain is able to set up a two-man race for the heart and soul of the party — mainstream conservative versus extreme conservative," GOP consultant Tony Fabrizio said.
The other Republican: Huckabee
The other Republican in this two-man scenario is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses last week with overwhelming support from born-again Christians and is hoping for a victory Jan. 19 in South Carolina.
In New Hampshire, McCain's fate was determined by independent voters, who helped McCain win the state over Bush eight years ago. While he was neck-and-neck with Romney among Republicans, more than a third of independents backed McCain, compared with a quarter for Romney, according to exit surveys for The Associated Press and the television networks.
McCain had competition for the independent vote from Democrat Barack Obama, who defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton last week in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Independents dominate the state's electorate and were drawn in larger numbers to Obama's bid to become the country's first black president.
Once considered the favorite in a multi-candidate field, McCain capsized last year, his campaign plummeting as he defended a plan to give illegal immigrants an eventual path to citizenship, angering a GOP conservative base that had never fully trusted the senator, especially after he broke with President Bush on tax cuts. A raft of senior aides abandoned ship, and more were laid off as McCain ran out of money.
Romney moved ahead in polling in New Hampshire, where as a former Massachusetts governor he was a neighbor, even an expatriate, considering he has a lakeside vacation home in New Hampshire.
McCain gains stability, Thompson fades
Then a confluence of events helped to stabilize McCain. Support began to slowly but steadily erode for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who attracts the same independent-minded Republicans as McCain.
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson faded after his late entry into the race. Huckabee surged in Iowa, pulling conservatives from Romney, whose Mormonism drew suspicion from the party's evangelical Christian base.
The immigration drumbeat began to subside as attention turned to other issues, and the unpopular war in Iraq seemed to be turning around, a development Republicans credited to Bush's troop surge, a strategy long advocated by McCain.
In recent weeks, McCain shot ahead of Giuliani and finally Romney in polls in New Hampshire, the site of McCain's biggest victory in 2000.
Giuliani, who came in sixth in Iowa, was competing for fourth in New Hampshire with longshot anti-war candidate Ron Paul, a Texas congressman. He is pinning his hopes on Florida, which votes three weeks from now, and the idea of rolling up several big states in the Feb. 5 mega Tuesday primaries.
McCain was viewed as the most electable Republican by four in 10 GOP primary voters, giving him a slight advantage over Romney.
Romney had an edge among conservatives, who made up little more than half of Tuesday's GOP vote, but McCain held a nearly 2-to-1 advantage among moderates.
Among born-again or evangelical Christians, McCain lagged Huckabee. But among those who do not put themselves in this category, a much larger share, Huckabee had support from fewer than one in 10.
Interestingly, among voters who wanted their candidate to share their religious beliefs, McCain led Romney, whose Mormonism has alienated some voters, polls have shown.