Monday, January 21, 2008

Can Giuliani Get Into the Republican Game in Florida?

By Stuart Rothenberg

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) has taken quite a hit recently both in the national media and in national polls. Journalists have noted that his crowds during the first two weeks of January were small, leading some to conclude that the mayor’s presidential race may be over even before it has begun.

But as we’ve already seen a number of times during this presidential campaign, it’s wise not to jump to conclusions, and Giuliani’s strategy has not yet been tested. There’s no need for you to be the first on your block to write off the New Yorker.

Giuliani’s fading strength in the national polls, his eroded standing in Quinnipiac University’s Florida polling and his poor crowds recently stem from the same factor: He didn’t compete in the early contests, where most of the attention and all of the initial excitement was located.

For many months, I’ve said that I thought Giuliani’s Florida/Feb. 5 strategy was both silly and plausible, and there is no reason to change that assessment at this point.

The mayor has tried to stay relevant in the Republican race by participating in debates, but those appearances alone didn’t make him a factor in Iowa, New Hampshire or Michigan, and he simply got lost. He’s likely to stay lost until after South Carolina, when he’ll take off his warm-up outfit and rush into the game long after all of the other players already have scored some points and drawn cheers from the fans.

Rudy’s strategy is fundamentally flawed because it allows the other candidates to control the process. They are the focus of attention, not him. If he is relevant at the end of January, it is only because no strong favorite has emerged from the early contests.

So Giuliani took the unwise gamble of passing on the early states, figuring that defeats there would destroy his candidacy. However risky, unwise and silly his strategy, it so far has worked as his strategists hoped. Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan were won by different contestants, and no matter what happens in South Carolina this weekend, the New Yorker will have a chance to alter the dynamics of the GOP race on Jan. 29, when he enters the Republican mix.

The crucial point is this: Giuliani didn’t fall in the national polls because Republican voters decided he doesn’t have the stuff to be president. He didn’t see his crowds thin because rank-and-file Republicans finally turned thumbs down on his more moderate social views (on abortion, gay rights or gun control). And he didn’t fall off the media’s national radar because Republicans remembered his friendship with Bernie Kerik or his messy personal life when he was still serving as mayor.

Giuliani’s star dimmed during the first half of January, not because he committed a gaffe but because he made himself irrelevant. When he becomes relevant at the end of January, both voters and the national media will once again turn to Rudy, and that’s when he’ll have his shot.

This isn’t to say that his strategy hasn’t already affected his prospects. If you don’t play, you can’t win, and you can’t build up any momentum along the way, as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney already have done. On the other hand, momentum apparently is overrated this year, since neither Huckabee’s victory in the caucuses nor McCain’s in New Hampshire catapulted them to a win in the next contest.

Possibly more important, Giuliani’s Florida/Feb. 5 strategy requires a lot of money, since it is based on a strong showing in a large number of states, many of them heavily populated, stretching from coast to coast.

You can win Iowa, as Huckabee proved, without a lot of cash. And you can overcome a large financial disadvantage in New Hampshire, as McCain demonstrated. Both of those states require and reward retail politics. But Giuliani’s strategy requires a lot of money, and he’s rapidly running out of it, according to most reports.

The first three Republican outcomes demonstrate that the GOP is badly fractured. That’s good for Giuliani, who benefits from the chaos and can offer himself up to Republicans as someone the entire party can get behind. However, McCain’s inability to attract the support of conservatives ought to create concern inside the Giuliani camp, which, like that of the Arizona Senator, ultimately needs support from those Republican primary voters.

Despite the early national polls, Rudy Giuliani never was the clear frontrunner in the GOP race. He merely was the biggest national celebrity in a contest that is not a national one. Still, after ignoring Iowa, pulling out of New Hampshire (after spending millions there) and bypassing Michigan and South Carolina, the former mayor continues to have his admirers and a scenario that says that he can win the Republican nomination.

Yes, even though the Republican nomination is still up for grabs and Giuliani’s strategy has so far paid off, he remains only a long shot for the Republican nomination. But given the weirdness that is the 2008 presidential race, that’s not half bad.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 17, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.