Somewhere On the Road Between Salem and Nashua, New Hampshire--John McCain was drinking a cup of coffee. This wouldn’t normally be all that noteworthy; McCain, after all, drinks a lot of coffee. But he was drinking this particular cup in the back of his campaign bus on Sunday afternoon, with just hours to go until he participated in the final GOP debate before the New Hampshire Primary. That made it an unusual cup of Joe.

You see, after stumbling badly in the first few debates of the ’08 campaign, McCain came up with a couple of new debate-day rules. Rule Number One: always do a town hall meeting on the day of a debate in order to loosen up; he’d just done one in front of an SRO crowd at a middle school in Salem, so he was okay on that score. Rule Number Two: don’t drink coffee on the afternoon of a debate, because it makes him edgy, jumpy, or, as he put it in a conversation a few weeks ago, when he has “four cups of coffee before a debate, I go out there and I’m like, Argh! Argh! Argh!’” And yet, here McCain was, sipping from his paper cup of Dunkin Donuts’ finest and flagrantly flouting one of the rules that have carried him to the precipice of a remarkable political comeback.

That’s just how confident McCain is at the moment.

McCain’s carefree attitude toward caffeine is particularly interesting because, in a way, the biggest obstacle he faces in New Hampshire right now—and maybe in the entire race—is staying on an even keel. For the past few weeks, ever since McCain started rising in the polls here, Mitt Romney’s campaign has seemingly been going out of its way to try to make him angry—whether it’s mailers that misrepresent McCain’s views on immigration or press releases that make an issue out of McCain’s temper. The Romney campaign has even gone so far as to compile “A Top 10 List” of the times McCain has attacked Republicans. (Number 8: “Sen. McCain Repeatedly Called Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) An “A**hole”.) If McCain didn’t like Romney before, he loathes him now.

But McCain has had to keep those feelings in check. One of the big lessons he and his advisors took away from the 2000 campaign was that, when McCain lost his cool in the face of the Bush campaign’s attacks on him in South Carolina and lashed back, running an ad that compared Bush to Bill Clinton (which, incidentally, is number 9 on that Romney campaign Top 10 list), he only hurt himself. “The lesson was, just run your game, communicate your message,” McCain’s longtime aide Mark Salter explained to me.

And so that’s what McCain’s trying to do. On the bus, he repeatedly refused to take the bait when reporters attempted to goad him into saying something nasty about Romney. “I’m going to respect my opponents,” he said, before taking an indirect shot by mentioning how much he respected Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani. And when McCain has gone after Romney directly, he’s made sure to do so with a smile. In the Saturday night debate, he drew a glare from Romney but laughs from the audience when he quipped, “I just wanted to say to Governor Romney, we disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree that you are the candidate of change.”

Indeed, there’s very little that seems capable of knocking McCain off his game right now. Earlier in the day, his town-hall meeting in Salem was repeatedly interrupted by a group of protestors who were demanding more money for HIV/AIDS treatment. The crowd booed them lustily, but McCain was unfazed. After some of his staffers ushered a group of them out at the beginning of the meeting, after they interrupted McCain's opening remarks, he invited them back in. “This is the purpose of town halls,” he explained, “to have the exchange of ideas and views and I don’t think I’ve ever had a town-hall meeting where I didn’t try to listen to everybody.” And when the protestors accepted that invitation but continued to interrupt the meeting, McCain calmly asked them to wait their turn to ask him a question. When that didn’t work, he jokingly threatened, “I’ve got some old veterans here. . . .Wilford Brimley is here!” (It turns out Noa Briqualon is a former Marine. Who knew?) And McCain’s aides ushered the group out again.

Amazingly, the protestors were let back into the meeting again and they thrust their hands in the air as McCain took questions from the audience. I assumed McCain would simply ignore them. But as the meeting went into its second hour and dozens of hands remained in the air, McCain, with time for one final question, turned to a protestor and said, “Yes, maam, go ahead.” The protestor promptly launched into a speech and McCain gently interrupted, “Do you have a question? Then please state the question.” She did and McCain answered it. The rally ended and, as McCain stood in the middle of a large scrum of admirers, he looked as placid as could be.

--Jason Zengerle