The astounding political comeback of John McCain was sealed yesterday when the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney effectively withdrew from the White House race, leaving the Arizona Senator – already far ahead in delegates – a clear path to the 2008 Republican nomination.
Technically, Mr Romney has only suspended his campaign, the formulation used by John Edwards when he dropped out of the Democratic contest last week. It means that he will keep the 140-odd delegates he has won thus far, and remain in a position to re-enter the race, should some disaster befall Mr McCain.
But, in practice, he has withdrawn, leaving Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who won a string of Southern states on "Super Tuesday", as the lone serious challenger. But Mr Huckabee, an evangelical Christian, has no chance of ultimate victory. Many believe his goal is the vice-presidential spot on a ticket headed by Mr McCain.
Mr Romney's withdrawal, announced at a gathering of leading conservatives in Washington, came as something of a surprise, given his defiant promise as his wretched Super Tuesday results came in, to "keep going all the way to the White House". But in reality he was bowing to the inevitable. "In this time of war," he said in what amounted to a concession speech, "I have to stand aside for our party and our country."
Wealthy, wholesome and handsome, he brought a glittering resume as businessman, governor and administrator to his candidacy.
But despite spending $35m (£18m) of his own money on the campaign, Mr Romney never quite connected with voters – not so much because he was a Mormon, but because he came across as an opportunist, changing his positions to suit the mood of the moment. As the governor of liberal Massachusetts, he established a reputation as a super-competent moderate. For the purposes of 2008 however, he reinvented himself as a red-blooded conservative, flatly opposed to abortion and immigration reform. He never convinced in that guise.
Worse still, he had to split the conservative vote with both Mr Huckabee and Fred Thompson. In the end, he won primaries and caucuses in only half-a-dozen states, mostly in the West.
For Mr McCain, by contrast, yesterday was a coronation, against all the earlier odds. Six months ago, he was politically left for dead. His hawkish views on Iraq were unpopular, his campaign was broke and the media had written him off.
But never happier than when an underdog, he fought back. One by one, his main rivals dropped out, first Mr Thompson, then Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, and now Mr Romney. In effect, Mr McCain was the last man standing.
And, in a stroke of irony, his first appearance as the party's all-but-anointed nominee yesterday came at the same conference where Mr Romney took his leave – before an audience with which he has clashed in the past.
Even now conservatives do not trust Mr McCain, and his readiness to break with party orthodoxy. But in a tough environment for his party, those maverick qualities make him the Republican with the best chance of retaining the White House. Some conservatives simply cannot stomach him, and talk of running their own candidate. But most seem to accept they have no choice but to embrace him. And, while Democrats are embroiled in a civil war between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Mr McCain can make an early start on uniting the party.
But it is not only the US that must come to terms with Mr McCain as presumptive nominee of his party. Polls say he has a real chance of defeating either Mr Obama or Ms Clinton on 4 November. The rest of the world must, therefore, come to terms with that possibility as well.
Most of it fervently hopes that a less belligerent America will emerge from this election. But if John McCain wins the presidency, those hopes may be dashed. More than any other candidate in the race, and more probably than George Bush, he has a warrior mindset. His grandfather and father were both admirals; as a US Navy pilot, he was imprisoned and tortured in Vietnam.
A President McCain would certainly remove blots on America's reputation, by unequivocally ending torture and closing Guantanamo Bay. But he is an unwavering supporter of the war in Iraq where, he has said, US forces should stay for "100 years if necessary". And few are more hawkish than McCain on Iran – to the point of reciting "bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys hit, "Barbara Ann".Reuse content