The Republican Party–as recently as two years ago the dominant political force on the planet–is a divided and dysfunctional remnant of its former self. So the party is desperately searching for a man on a white horse who will rally the troops and defend the presidency, the last redoubt of its former fortunes. In Iowa and New Hampshire, where Republicans dominated competitive caucuses and primaries as recently as 2000, enthusiasm about the Democratic presidential contest far outstripped that for the GOP fight. And those who did choose to caucus and vote as Republicans took the party in radically different directions. Iowa Republicans gave a caucus win to the champion of their party’s evangelical wing, while New Hampshire Republicans opted for a heretic tentatively invited back into the fold because of a creeping sense on the part of mainstream Republicans and their independent allies that he alone might hold the fort against the tide of Obama-mania or resurgent Clintonism. While Mike Huckabee’s Baptist-with-a-guitar candidacy is unlikely to secure him the nomination of a party led by cynics who see the faithful as prospective voters rather than prospective candidates, John McCain’s outsider status has suddenly become his most appealing characteristic for Republicans who are starting to recognize that Americans do not approve of what their party has become.

McCain’s renewal as a serious contender holds out the prospect that if Republicans can swallow their ideologies and accept him, the party might yet hold its own, especially if the fall race is focused on national security issues, which are the Vietnam POW’s forte. Even though McCain’s stands on most issues are those of a committed conservative, and even though on foreign policy he often out-neocons the neocons, his maverick stances on campaign finance reform, global warming and immigration keep him at odds with a Republican base that has been told again and again by talk-radio personalities that the Arizona senator cannot be trusted.

The GOP establishment’s discomfort with McCain actually helped him in New Hampshire. It made him credible with independents and caused even Republican stalwarts to think that, whether the party must compete in the fall against the newly emotional campaign of Hillary Clinton or what Bill Clinton dismissed as the “fairy tale” candidacy of Barack Obama, the best GOP bet might be a “senior statesman.” That’s McCain’s fundamental appeal to Republicans who are justifiably shaken not just by the failures of George W. Bush’s presidency and their party’s faltering poll numbers but by the fact that in Iowa and New Hampshire, independents and a surprising number of Republicans caucused and voted as Democrats.

Republican leaders and the grassroots faithful would prefer another candidate to McCain. But, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you campaign with the candidates you’ve got. And the other GOP contenders inspire even less confidence than McCain among the more enlightened faithful. Romney has been on both sides of “core values” issues like abortion rights, gay rights and immigration. Giuliani, by skipping first caucus and primary states, lost an opportunity to prove he could appeal to base voters despite their disdain for his stances on social issues. Huckabee, who appealed to the base in Iowa as a “Christian leader” but then tried to run in more secular New Hampshire as just a “leader,” terrifies GOP donors and strategists, who fear he’ll be a Barry Goldwater-style disaster in November. Thompson’s campaign has confirmed that the actor who wanted to play the role of Reagan is not ready for prime time. But the challenge runs deeper than personalities; it reflects the fact that the party has no candidate who can easily maintain its unnatural coalition of home-schooling fundamentalists, anti-tax suburbanites, gun-owning libertarians, sherry-sipping neocons and the business elite.

Listening to conservative talk-radio as the New Hampshire primary approached offered a reminder that, as conservative commentator Laura Ingraham admits, “There’s a real debate within the Republican Party about what conservatism means in the twenty-first century.” On the eve of the primary, Rush Limbaugh was lambasted by callers for being too tough on Huckabee, for neglecting Ron Paul’s libertarian and antiwar candidacy, and for failing to recognize the fundamental flaws of Romney and other contenders the conservative commissars prefer to McCain.

The commissars may yet win. Romney has plenty of his own money to carry on, and if the divisions run deep enough in the early caucus and primary states, Giuliani’s late-stage strategy could prevail. But Democratic strategist Bob Beckel was not spinning when he said, “McCain is the one person [Democrats] fear more than anybody else.” As Beckel notes, “McCain could make a little bit of the reform argument himself, and he’s got the national security issues.”

McCain is old and edgy. That’s his strength; it makes him just enough of an outsider to keep Republicans competitive in a “change” election. It’s the argument he’ll be delivering in Michigan, South Carolina, Florida and other states where the GOP’s difficult debate about what conservatism means–and how competitive the party wants to be in November–will play out as it struggles to nominate a replacement for the least-popular President in modern American history.