A buoyant John McCain picked up another key endorsement yesterday – that of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – and embarked on a flurry of fundraising events and appearances with Republican Party notables to consolidate his front-runner status ahead of next Tuesday's tsunami of primaries and caucuses across more than 20 US states.
The veteran senator for Arizona goes into Super Tuesday with huge polling leads in the two biggest states, New York and California, and the momentum pushing in his direction.
Few political analysts expect him to wrap up the nomination next week – his closest rival, Mitt Romney, is expected to pick off enough delegates and victories in the smaller states to keep his flagging hopes alive a little longer – but the race is most emphatically his to lose at this point.
Governor Schwarzenegger let his endorsement of Senator McCain be known just before Wednesday night's Republican candidates' debate at the Ronald Reagan presidential library on the outskirts of Los Angeles – a shot of political testosterone that overshadowed a lacklustre performance by Senator McCain in the debate itself.
The Hollywood superstar-turned-magnetic politician then formalised his endorsement yesterday morning during an appearance with Senator McCain at a solar roofing company in Los Angeles – a venue symbolising both men's interest in breaking out of traditional Republican thinking on energy and climate change and, by extension, their interest in appealing to independent and Democratic voters.
Until now, Governor Schwarzenegger had vowed to remain neutral on the presidential race, because he felt close to both Senator McCain and the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, the front-runner for much of 2007 whose candidature ended spectacularly this week.
Mr Giuliani dropped out on Wednesday after placing a distant third in Florida and immediately threw his enthusiastic support behind Senator McCain, calling him "an American hero" that the country would welcome to the White House. That, in turn, allowed Governor Schwarzenegger to embrace him too.
Senator McCain hardly needed the Schwarzenegger stamp of approval in California – the most recent poll, taken before Mr Giuliani's withdrawal, showed him 13 percentage points ahead of Mr Romney. Now, though, he looks well-nigh unstoppable. In New York, as in California, Mr Giuliani's withdrawal has opened the way for the party's senior elected officials and most valued private donors to throw their weight behind him.
Governor Schwarzenegger is likely to prove a valuable ally. Not only is he a popular figure in California – adept at crossing the party divide on issues from global warming to increasing the minimum wage – but he represents something of a counterweight to the George Bush neoconservative wing of the party that has come so badly unstuck.
His Hollywood glamour is an unfailing asset on the campaign trail – even in states and before audiences with serious reservations about his liberal position on social issues such as abortion and gay rights.
If Senator McCain needs anything at this point, it is money. He ended 2007 with his campaign close to $5m (£2.5m) in debt, and was heavily outspent by Mr Romney – who has dipped deep into his considerable personal fortune – every step of the way so far.
Rather than focus exclusively on campaign appearances, Mr McCain will take time over the next five days to host fundraisers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and the east coast in preparation for the lingering nomination battle and, one assumes, the general election.
Mr Romney's best hope at this point is that some of the barrage of negative comments he has made about Senator McCain – both on the stump and in his television ads – will begin to stick.
In Wednesday night's debate, Mr Romney did a reasonable job of fending off Mr McCain's accusations that he had advocated a troop withdrawal from Iraq, but was repeatedly undermined by the lesser candidates, Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee. Congressman Paul got the biggest applause of the night when he said the Romney-McCain back-and-forth was "rather silly" and urged the candidates to talk about substantive foreign policy issues.
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