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He has survived multiple aircraft crashes as a naval aviator, five years in a Vietnam prison camp and a quarter of a century of political combat on Capitol Hill.

But even by the standards of John McCain, the great survivor, Tuesday’s comeback victory in the New Hampshire Republican primary was an impressive feat.

Written off as a spent force six months ago, the 71-year-old senator from Arizona staged a late surge to beat Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, despite spending only half as much as his rival.

It was a victory for Mr McCain’s perceived “authenticity” and straight-talking honesty over his wealthier rival’s alleged prevarication.

Above all, it provided vindication for his staunch support for the war in Iraq – a stance that once looked likely to sink his campaign but came to symbolise his political bravery as violence in the country declined.

Now he must prove he can turn an isolated triumph into a sustained bid for the Republican nomination, eight years after losing to George W. Bush in 2000.

Mr McCain faces a battle with Mike Huckabee, the winner in Iowa, to become recognised as frontrunner but there is no guarantee either of them will win the nomination.

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, has got off to a slow start in the early-voting states but remains confident of catching his rivals with victories in a series of big states that vote later this month and in early February.

Mr Romney insists that he, too, will fight to remain in contention despite back-to back defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire.

His chances of recovery look slim, having staked his campaign on winning the early states. But, with a large personal fortune to draw from, he can afford to stay in the race and hope others slip up. Even Fred Thompson, the former senator for Tennessee, is planning one last shot at reviving his moribund campaign in South Carolina.

For a party that has traditionally settled on a presidential nominee early in each election cycle, this year’s chaotic race is an unsettling experience.

The fractured nature of the contest reflects tensions and upheaval within Republican ranks as the party seeks to revive its fortunes after recent electoral setbacks.

None of the candidates has so far succeeded in unifying the “conservative coalition” and it is doubtful whether any of them can.

Mr McCain appeals to fiscal conservatives with his reputation for tackling government waste. He also enjoys support among national security hawks because of his military experience and backing for the war on terror.

But his maverick nature alarms party loyalists, while his support for granting citizenship to illegal immigrants angers many grassroots Republicans.

Mr Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and Baptist minister, has strong support among evangelical Christians but alarms the party’s pro-business elite with his populist rhetoric on economic policy.

Mr Giuliani is widely admired for tackling crime in New York and for his leadership of the city after the 9/11 terror attacks. But his liberal views on abortion, gay marriage and gun control alienate social conservatives.

Mr Romney boasts an impressive leadership record that includes co-founding Bain Capital, one of the world’s largest private equity companies, and rescuing the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics from financial crisis.

But his Mormon faith is a source of mistrust among evangelical Christians, while policy “flip-flops” on abortion and other issues have undermined his credibility.

Whoever wins the nomination is likely to do so with only grudging support from large sections of a demoralised party.

If Mr McCain is to emerge victorious, he must avoid a repeat of 2000, when he won in New Hampshire but saw his momentum fade after defeat in South Carolina.

This year’s South Carolina primary on January 19 could prove just as critical, with Mr Huckabee currently leading opinion polls there.

Mr Huckabee finished a distant third in New Hampshire, where there are fewer of the evangelical voters who gave him victory in Iowa. But Christian conservatives will once again be prominent in South Carolina – the first “Bible Belt” state to vote.

Even if he survives South Carolina, Mr McCain would face a challenge from Mr Giuliani in Florida on January 29 and in the 20 states that vote on February 5.

At 71, Mr McCain would be the oldest candidate elected to the Oval Office. Francis Dutty, a 67 year-old Vietnam veteran who attended the McCain victory rally, said age should be no obstacle. “His mother is still going strong at 95, so he has good genes on his side,” he said.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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