by Jake Tapper and Avery Miller, ABC News
His party may have taken "a thumpin'," in the words of President Bush, but ABC News has learned that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and his political team have decided it's full steam ahead for his 2008 presidential campaign. Although no absolute, final decision has been made, sources close to McCain say on Wednesday in Phoenix, he and a half dozen of his top aides huddled and decided to proceed more formally with his quest for the White House.
A presidential exploratory committee will be set up this month -- perhaps as early as next week.
McCain's official, final decision will likely not come until after the Christmas holidays, when he will talk to his wife, Cindy, and his children.
Among his seven children, Jimmy is at boot camp at Camp Pendleton; Jack is at the Naval Academy; and daughter Megan is in her senior year at Columbia University.
In the meantime, McCain's team is exploring office space in Virginia, hiring staff and building infrastructure in key early-primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Strategy Could Target Swing Voters, Bipartisan Issues
Despite Republican losses of the House and Senate, McCain sees encouraging signs for his personal quest.
Independent voters were the key swing voters in this election, going overwhelmingly for Democrats.
Republicans will want to focus on winning them back, and according to polls, McCain is more popular with them than he is with conservative Republicans.
In exit polls, Republican voters expressed disappointment with their party on the issues of fiscal restraint and government ethics, issues McCain has tried to make his signature.
"A lot of people look at the Republican Congress and say the problem is they only took half measures of which McCain wanted to do in full measure," said former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon, who worked on the 2004 campaign.
He said McCain had been a "leader for years" in those areas.
"All the relevant issues in the Congress now -- spending reform, ethics reform -- are issues that John McCain has been talking about for a long time," he said.
Why would McCain start his campaign so early?
For one reason, the race is wide open -- with no president or vice president running for the first time in 80 years.
Already Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa have announced their intentions.
The race also looks to be expensive. In 2004, President Bush spent more than $345 million on his campaign.
Though he's considered his party's front-runner, McCain faces some considerable hurdles.
Having turned 70 in August, he would be the oldest U.S. president to get elected. And he faces at least one strong challenger within the party, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and others in the seemingly ascendant Democratic Party, such as Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill.
Moreover, McCain has yet to resolve the problems he's had with the Republican Party's conservative base.
"He has a problem with pro-lifers on judges, he ... became very hostile to the Second Amendment community and supportive of gun control. He has a problem with the economic conservatives because he's been bad on taxes for six years now," said longtime critic Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, which includes individuals and businesses opposed to higher taxes.
"Conservatives who care about the tax issue are very concerned that he opposed Bush's tax cuts," Norquist said.
McCain has tried to combat that with goodwill. He appeared at 346 events for Republican candidates this election cycle and was said to be the most requested speaker for GOP candidates.
"He's built a base across the country, and unlike [in] 2000, John McCain will run a 50-state strategy," McKinnon said.
While emphasizing more bipartisan issues such as campaign finance reform and a patients' bill of rights early in the Bush presidency, McCain has more recently strongly supported the war in Iraq.
He may very well be the only serious presidential contender calling for more troops to go to Iraq.
While he opposes a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, he supported such an effort in his state -- an effort that failed.
McCain has also attempted to reach out to conservative evangelical leaders, as he did with the Rev. Jerry Falwell earlier this year.
Appealing to those conservatives while keeping the independents so important to his party's 2008 hopes may pose a considerable challenge.
ABC News' Ed O'Keefe, Mark Halperin and Teddy Davis contributed to this report.