Reporters have lately been recalling the story with admiration, though at the time a charitable word for the candidate was hard to come by. In the months before the primaries, he had been written off, the quotable, ever-accessible straight talker of 2000 who had lost his charm, mostly because the situation in the Iraq war was desperate, he was associated with it, and he would not equivocate. His campaign was a wreck, his consultants had scattered, he was flying commercial and unaccompanied to New Hampshire. Continuing news coverage was termed a “death watch.”

Veterans of the 1996 presidential contest could remember a vanishing of prominent friends and supporters as November neared, leaving Bob Dole in the last hours to face his fate practically alone on the stage except for the senator from Arizona. That was the shape of McCain’s own quest by late 2007. “We’re at 3 percent and the poll has a 5 percent margin of error,” went his stock line at the time — along with that other old favorite: “In the words of Chairman Mao, ‘It’s always darkest before it’s totally black.’”

He refused to quit and, above all, he would not abandon the cause in Iraq, saying — in surely the most enduring words of any 2008 candidate — “I would rather lose an election than see my country lose a war.”