The most interesting development in last night’s GOP debate was the performance of John McCain, who is finally finding a place for himself in this race. McCain realizes that the primary – on both sides – will likely come down to which candidates voters think can best handle the mess in Iraq. I still think betting his campaign on the success of this surge is quite a risky strategy, but it’s probably the only way he can win. We can go on and on and on about which candidate is the truest conservative on abortion, stem cells, and the rest, but the war is THE issue in 2008 and no candidate can win the nomination unless voters believe he has what it takes to clean up Bush’s mess.

McCain attacked both Romney and Giuliani last night on their ability to deal with the War in Iraq. It’s notable that he does this, somewhat effectively, without trying to appear too aggressive, as he did in previous debates. (There’s a clip of the exchanges here – although I’m not sure how long Fox is gonna let that stay up on YouTube).

Despite being written off by many people, there’s a growing inside-the-beltway chorus that McCain’s not done yet. Check out some positive press for McCain from The Weekly Standard, WaPo, and National Review.

Did you think you would see the words McCain and positive press in the same sentence again this year?

Of course, as David notes below, this may be too little too late. I think the biggest test for McCain comes when we see the 3rdQ fundraising numbers at the end of October. If McCain can get his act together, dollar bill-wise, he stays in the race. If he beats Thompson and Huckabee, despite all their buzz, then I think he can stay in through New Hampshire and see if Rudy and Romney fall apart. But if he comes in fifth in the 3rdQ money race, I’ll officially give up this defending-McCain position. (I’m sure you will all be grateful).