COLUMBIA -- The bus gamely declared "No Surrender" from a banner hung on its side. But the presidential campaign of John McCain was going nowhere.
During a mid-September bus tour of South Carolina, McCain made a breakfast stop at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Aiken. A summer heat wave had broken temporarily and McCain's campaign had cooled too, falling from early front-runner to also-ran in most polls.
But the surface appearances belied a strong foundation.
Through years of work, McCain had built a dedicated network of S.C. supporters, including some of the state's most-influential elected officials, and voters who stuck with him, even when it appeared he was down and out.
In early January, McCain won New Hampshire, a win that resurrected his candidacy. Then, a former U.S. Senate colleague delivered a devastating critique of McCain's closest rival in a televised debate just before the S.C. vote.
But in the months before McCain's fortunes would turn, his campaign consisted of a quiet confidence in his S.C. network and kinship with veterans like him.
That September day, in an Aiken VFW hall, McCain shook hands and was embraced as a brother as he would be dozens of times more on the campaign trail.
Building a network
The U.S. senator from Arizona had said repeatedly that he lost South Carolina in 2000 because then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas had a better political network. So over the eight intervening years, McCain built that network.
"We needed to become the guys that beat us," said Trey Walker, McCain's S.C. strategist.
"He's clearly paid attention to South Carolina for a long time," said House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, a 2000 Bush supporter who backed McCain this year. "You go where the votes are, and the votes in South Carolina matter a lot."
McCain visited the state often in the eight years since his defeat, usually accompanied by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., his ally and Senate colleague.
McCain's political action committee donated to S.C. campaigns, GOP groups and a constitutional initiative to ban same-sex marriage.
McCain met with evangelical leaders, including Oran P. Smith and others with the Palmetto Family Council, and he courted the state's Republican elite.
House Speaker Harrell met with all the major Republican candidates. But Harrell and his wife, Cathy, decided to back McCain during the drive from Columbia to Charleston after meeting him.
McCain recognized the Islamic threat to the United States, Harrell said. McCain also had a daughter about the same age as the Harrells', so McCain's concern about Internet predators rang true.
"He understood the issues I cared about and the issues Cathy cared about almost intuitively," Harrell said. "I wanted to go to work for him and help him win."
McCain already had lined up the support of Graham and Attorney General Henry McMaster. Later, he added Adjutant General for York County native Stan Spears, the elected head of the S.C. National Guard, and 40 of 74 S.C. House Republicans.
Those supporters allowed the McCain campaign to target voters locally.
But that advantage appeared to collapse quickly during the summer, when McCain's campaign exhausted the more than $24 million it had raised early.
McCain's national campaign staff was replaced. In their place, McCain's old strategy became its new strategy: a leaner campaign that lived off the land in South Carolina.
"They took the assets they had available, which weren't much," Harrell said, "and took over and brought him back."
The No Surrender tour was part of that strategy.
The Aiken campaign stop was met by supporters who, according to exit polls, proved crucial to McCain's win -- those who made up their mind more than a month before the election.
Those voters included Neal and Lucy Dillon. The Dillons' son was killed in Iraq, and they wanted McCain to make sure their son's life counted toward a victory in Iraq.
"You need to leave here and work for him and make phone calls," Dillon told the Aiken crowd, at one point choking up. "He's the only candidate who knows the sadness of sacrifice."
While McCain's poll numbers faded in the fall, all that was needed was a spark to reignite his followers. That spark came in the form of McCain's New Hampshire primary win Jan. 8.
"We were able to cut the switch back on with very little effort," Walker said. "Very few of our supporters left the campaign."
New Hampshire bounce
Richard Quinn, a state political consultant who volunteered his expertise to McCain, began deciphering the New Hampshire exit polls. Independents went overwhelmingly to McCain, he noted, but he also did well with registered Republicans. That was good news for South Carolina, said Quinn.
"Back in the summer, when things were going low, we were asking: `How can this be happening?"' McMaster told supporters that night. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, it all depends on us."
The New Hampshire win helped more than McMaster and the others celebrating that night knew.
Exit polls taken 11 days later, as voters left S.C. precincts, revealed an interesting tidbit.
S.C. Republican primary voters who decided at the last minute whom they would support split evenly between McCain and second-place finisher former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. But McCain took a majority of the S.C. voters who decided a week before the Palmetto State primary, in the days following New Hampshire.
McCain won the state by 15,000 votes.
In 2000, Greenville and Spartanburg counties buried McCain. This time around, he lost the counties by a total of only 3,500 votes. In part, McCain's margin of loss in those counties was cut by the fact that former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson took 21 percent of the vote.
McCain more than made up for his Upstate deficit with a 9,000-vote win in Harrell's Charleston County.
Said Walker, "Charleston County was a monster."