Continued from page 8

Mr. McCain, campaigning in Mr. Reid’s home state of Nevada, hotly disputed the Senate leader. “It seems to me Senator Reid has lost all sense of priority.”

But on vote after vote the McCain alliance held, preventing a congressional mandate for withdrawal. Mr. Lieberman was the key to the achievement. The senator from Connecticut, an early and consistent supporter of the war, became an outcast in his own party, taking relentless criticism from the powerful antiwar flank, much of it coming from MoveOn.org.

In the 2006 Democratic primaries, Mr. Lieberman even lost his party’s nomination. Undeterred, he changed his party affiliation to independent and won decisively in the general election, sealing the victory that separated him from the Democratic powers. In 2007, though continuing as a member of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, he became Mr. McCain’s 41st vote, a reliable ally of the 40 other senators whom Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham had assembled to prevent votes on withdrawal.

“We couldn’t have done it without Joe,” Mr. Graham said. “He replaced a [lost] Republican vote. He gave us the vote that we needed on many occasions to avoid pulling the plug on Iraq.”

The dark days

But as Mr. McCain was winning the battle to preserve prospects for victory in Iraq, the wheels of his “Straight Talk Express” campaign bus came hurtling off.

His campaign had become badly bloated and was bleeding money. His standing was plummeting in the polls as violence spiked in Iraq and public faith in the wisdom of the surge declined. The senator slashed his staff and reporters abandoned the candidate, the story moving on to the lively presidential campaigns of former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

His organization nearly broke, Mr. McCain began traveling on scheduled commercial flights, often squeezing into a seat in economy, instead of the comfortable chartered private jets that are the mark of successful campaigns. Sometimes aides drove him through the night to campaign events. “He went through the airport carrying his own bags,” Mr. Graham recalled. “We were fifth in a four-person race.”

Mr. McCain nevertheless kept a stiff upper lip, joking in New Hampshire that “in the words of Chairman Mao, it’s always darkest before it’s totally black.”

With Americans about to embark on a long weekend of backyard barbecues, cold beer and fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July of 2007, several candidates declared a timeout. Not Mr. McCain. He set off for Iraq, again.

A renewed faith

He accepted an invitation from Gen. Petraeus to spend America’s birthday with the troops and to attend a re-enlistment ceremony. Nearly 600 men and women packed themselves into the Al Faw Palace, once used as a duck-hunting retreat by Saddam Hussein.

The ceremony at the palace, rechristened by the Americans as Camp Victory, included the naturalization of 166 soldiers as American citizens. Gen. Petraeus administered the oath of enlistment. When the senator stepped up to speak, he could see troops hanging off balconies and crowding staircases to get a glimpse of a man they credited for sending them reinforcements.

Two pairs of empty boots stood upright in a chair near the senator, a melancholy reminder of two soldiers killed before they could take their scheduled oaths as Americans.

“I know it’s not possible for even the most grateful nation to compensate you in kind for the measure of devotion that you have with great personal sacrifice given our country,” Mr. McCain told the dogface soldiers. “We have incurred a debt to you that we can never repay in full. We can offer you only the small tribute of our humility.

Story Continues →