In the new CNN poll, John McCain is the most competitive among Democrats (and the only candidate who leads Hillary Clinton). He is also rock solid on national security, an opponent of wasteful government spending, and pro-life. He was written off for dead during the summer by many pundits, but has survived, and it's now quite possible that he could rise from the pack in this chaotic field and capture the nomination, a la John Kerry in 2004.
Let's say Mike Huckabee wins Iowa. Mitt Romney, the current New Hampshire frontrunner, will head into the Granite State hobbled by stories about how he spent millions of dollars building a top-flight organization for over a year, only to lose to a candidate with little formal organization, spending pennies to Romney's dollar. While Romney was in a pitched and losing battle in Iowa, McCain will have made New Hampshire his second home for a month, and it's a place where he won in 2000, maintained a stellar organization, and gained the endorsement of the state's largest newspaper this time around. It will also be less-hospitable terrain for Huckabee. A win for McCain there would solidify the "comeback kid" narrative heading into Michigan, where he also won in 2000, so let's say he pulls it out again. Then Romney will have lost three, including his childhood home state, and will be severely weakened heading into South Carolina, which is currently all bunched up together, and McCain, with all the momentum, could emerge from the pack. As the race moves on to Florida and Feb. 5, there are other factors to consider. Heading into a national primary, McCain does have a national profile, that, coupled with his winning streak, could gain him an edge over Rudy Giuliani and lead him to the nomination. And should either Giuliani or Fred Thompson be forced to drop out of the race earlier than expected, either one would be likely to endorse McCain. Giuliani has explicitly said he would be supporting McCain were he not running himself, and Thompson and McCain are old friends in the Senate.
No doubt, McCain will have an uphill battle. His national poll numbers have been weak, he's essentially held steady in New Hampshire over the past few months despite all of the attention he's given the state, he's still distrusted by many conservatives, and he'll be strapped for cash. But each of his competitors have what in other years would be fatal flaws as well. There are doubts about Giuliani's social views and personal baggage. Despite all of the money and effort Romney has thrown into the race, there appears to be severe resistance to his candidacy (how come Thompson and Huckabee, at different times, have been able to easily vault past him in national polls, and in Huckabee's case, in Iowa?). Huckabee has problems with economic conservatives while national security conservatives remain skeptical. As people learn more about his record as governor, this is a bubble that can pop real fast. Thompson has nosedived in polls, and will need a surprise showing in Iowa to convince people he still has a pulse.
To be sure, I'm not predicting that McCain will be the nominee. All I'm saying is that he's very much in the mix in this wild race.
UPDATE: I see that ABC wrote some similar things.