At 5:15 Tuesday afternoon, Arizona Sen. John McCain stood in his room on the eighth floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel rehearsing his victory speech, when two of his top aides, Senate chief of staff Mark Salter and campaign political director "Sunny" John Weaver, walked in.
Salter read his boss the exit poll numbers -- numbers that had McCain with 52 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote and his opponent, national front-runner George W. Bush, with 28 percent. It was a thrashing.
McCain took a moment, as Salter and Weaver later recounted. "Gee," he finally said. "That has to have implications, doesn't it?"
"Gee," Salter said, smiling. "You might be president. That might be one of them."
McCain turned to Weaver. "A fine mess you've gotten me into this time, Weaver," he deadpanned.
The numbers then narrowed a tad, of course -- McCain had 49 percent and Bush 31 percent; Steve Forbes snared 14 percent; Alan Keyes got 6 percent and Gary Bauer barely had any. But McCain had been out-spent and out-endorsed and he came from behind in a way that his friend former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., says he's "never seen before." One GOP state poll from last year had Bush with 61 percent and McCain with 3 percent. Any McCain win here would have been impressive; an 18-point margin will be seen by many as a resounding refutation of the intended coronation of Bush, perhaps the Frank Sinatra Jr. of American politics.
Folks at Bush headquarters were, indeed, stunned by the magnitude of McCain's win. All weekend, tracking polls had the candidates running neck and neck. With so much riding on the 40 percent of the state registered as independent, no one knew what was actually going to go down.
Indeed, at McCain's polling firm -- Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria, Va. -- one staffer was derided for her naiveti when she picked McCain to win by 15 points in the office pool.
"But that's what our tracking polls say!" Elizabeth Harrington told her jeering office mates. Harrington is now a little richer. Chief pollster Bill McInturff attributes his client's win to the fact that so-called undecided voters were clearly McCain voters; they just were keeping their minds open until they actually pulled the lever. As of Sunday night, McCain was showing 90 percent approval ratings among undecided voters, with 60 percent saying they strongly approve.
But it wasn't just independents who voted for McCain, McInturff emphasized. McCain won every single GOP demographic group with the exception of members of the religious right. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers both went for McCain. Young and old, independent and Republican, men and women went for McCain. Bush and McCain had been involved in a heated debate about whether to devote the budget surplus to a sizable tax cut, as Bush proposed, or whether to use the money to shore up Social Security and pay down the national debt, as is McCain's plan. According to McInturff, McCain lost those who favored the tax cut by 6 percentage points, while he won those who favored his plan by an astounding 44 percentage points. Additionally, thousands of previously self-disenfranchised voters who were able to register and vote in the same one-stop-shopping trip did so, and did so for McCain by a proportion of more than 3-to-1.
The Bush camp immediately tried to soft-pedal the win, rightly pointing out that they're running in more states and McCain has a lot of catching up to do for Tuesday night's victory to have further ramifications. In his concession speech, Bush pointed out that McCain had "spent more time in this great state than all of the other candidates combined."
"Tonight is his night and the night of his supporters and we congratulate him," Bush said. Then he congratulated those who had worked on the Bush team.
In McCain's hotel suite, among the campaign inner sanctum, Rudman laughed. "If I were him, I wouldn't be congratulating my team, I'd be firing them," he said.
In his acceptance speech, McCain used his brief national spotlight to both repeat his message of reform and rattle his conservative saber. Naysayers said that his message of campaign-finance reform had no room in the Republican Party. "We made room," McCain said, "we made room. And we sent a powerful message to Washington that change is coming. This is a good thing, my friends. Today the Republican Party has recovered its heritage of reform ... And it is the beginning of the end of the truth-twisting politics of Bill Clinton and Al Gore."
Now, of course, comes the hard part.
"We're in the war now," said McCain's impish spinmeister Mike Murphy. He and McCain's staff said they knew how tough it was going to get in the coming days, but they were well-prepared for it.
"We have a great staff, and a great message," said Salter. "But the key is that McCain is the hardest working man in show biz."
Added McCain's younger brother, Joe McCain, "What they don't understand is John McCain doesn't quit and John McCain doesn't quit like nobody else doesn't quit."
But as McCain's primary victory celebration cranked into high gear, and the maverick Republican's voters and staffers and well-wishers were drinking and smiling ear-to-ear, McCain's senior strategists were girding themselves for some major duty party-crashers.
McCain's trouncing of Bush -- by the largest margin of victory in a contested New Hampshire primary since Ronald Reagan Bush-slapped W.'s father in 1980 -- only means a tougher battle yet to come.
"The Bush camp is going to be slightly happy that this allows them to raise more money," noted former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, whom Bush defeated in 1994, on CNN's "Larry King Live." "They got a wake-up call. And they'll get busy."
That's because the genial mien of the Bush family belies a mercenary impulse. He didn't just find those campaign dollars -- $67 million as of the Dec. 31 filing -- in his jeans pockets.
And while the McCain money machine is still functioning with its $15.6 million, that is relative pocket change, and they only have roughly half of that in cash on hand.
But the campaign also got a strong indication that McCain's big win might bring in even bigger donors: According to his staff, his campaign Web site raised $14,000 in the 90 minutes after he gave his acceptance speech.
McCain is planning to replicate his frantic New Hampshire campaign in South Carolina. In the upcoming weeks, before the Palmetto State's Feb. 19 primary -- where polls have him trailing by 20 points -- McCain has scheduled dozens of town meetings. And running around with McCain this last weekend -- and over the next three weeks -- are South Carolina Reps. Lindsey Graham and Mark Sanford, members of the class of '94 who see McCain as the natural extension of the rebelliousness of that infamous congressional class that butted heads with the entrenched GOP establishment. And they're eager to get this fight going on a national level -- immediately after his victory, Graham, Sanford and McCain flew down to Columbia, S.C., for a 3 a.m. rally.
Bush and his surrogates have already been waging a war against McCain in South Carolina. A pro-life group there has been running radio ads that ludicrously insinuate that McCain is pro-choice. And any McCain gaffe -- a not-unheard-of event, especially on his free-wheelin' "Straight Talk Express" where he yuks it up, speaks his mind and squishes around on issues like abortion and gun control -- will be exploited for all it's worth.
In addition, other issues that McCain bucked his party on, like campaign-finance reform and tobacco taxes, will be used against him. As will his fabled temper, the messy breakup of his first marriage, his wife Cindy's struggle with painkiller abuse and fund-raising practices that don't quite jibe with his reformer rhetoric. McCain will come in for far greater scrutiny.
But McCain can play tough too. Right before the Michigan debate the campaign met a young volunteer named Heidi Quigley. She had been a Bush volunteer until that campaign had instructed her to bad-mouth McCain's tax plan for a Bush campaign commercial. When McCain later pledged during the Michigan debate not to go negative -- and ran over to Bush, grabbing his hand and almost forcing him to do the same --- he did so knowing that Bush had already filmed a negative ad against him. It was a crafty move and, afterward, Bush couldn't exactly back down. That, however, could change very soon.