Right now, like it or not, the five-term senator is stuck in “get off my lawn” territory, lashing out at his friend-turned-foe Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for defense secretary; incessantly tugging at what McCain is convinced is a coverup of the September attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya; lambasting the president; and railing against indiscriminate defense cuts. If hard-core conservatives feel burned by McCain’s resurgent reform spirit, the media that he once called his “base” have essentially written him off as an angry and sour loser who once went through a maverick phase but has, in the words of “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, gone on a “seven-year quest to negate every good thing he’d ever done.”

“It does hurt,” McCain said softly. “I admit to you that it bothers me from time to time, and I wish that it didn’t. But it does.”

McCain’s most probable avenue back to the land of mavericks and media adulation runs through immigration reform. The Republican base may hate him for it, but the country and a GOP whose unpopularity with Hispanic voters has prompted an existential crisis may end up owing him, as they say in Senate parlance, a debt of gratitude.

“If it gets done, he would certainly deserve a large degree of credit for helping the party,” said Charlie Black, a longtime McCain confidant.