Last November, when Rudy Giuliani was still the national frontrunner in the Republican presidential race, I asked him about his strategy for the weeks to come. His campaign would be moving into Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, he told me. “Everybody has their own theory,” Giuliani said. “Our theory was to get the big states organized, try to beat everybody else to getting the big states organized, so you have them as a fallback, and then take your resources and start to expend them in the states that come up first. And now we’re going to do that.”
But he didn’t, really. Giuliani didn’t make an all-out effort in Iowa, he didn’t make an all-out effort in New Hampshire, and he didn’t make much of an effort at all in Michigan and South Carolina. Rather than try to win in any of those states — in some of them, he had been leading in the polls as recently as December — Giuliani decamped to Florida, where he has been campaigning almost nonstop for weeks.
There was no single reason for Giuliani’s decision. Rather, his move was the result of falling ratings in some early-state polls, the effects of a damaging — and inaccurate — report on Giuliani’s personal life, and the candidate’s own campaign style. Put them all together, and Giuliani was left with an ostensibly national campaign that had shrunk to a single state.
“It was the best choice when you consider all the circumstances that were presented to us about resources and strengths and weaknesses and the place where you can make your case most effectively,” Giuliani told reporters in Boca Raton yesterday. “And the fact that this is a wide open race means that, no, I don’t think that it was a mistake.”
I asked Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime whether it made sense to abandon the early-primary states. He reminded me that that’s not a completely accurate description of Giuliani’s strategy. “We did spend a fair amount of resources in New Hampshire,” DuHaime told me. “We just looked and realized the inherent strength that John McCain, from 2000, had in New Hampshire and South Carolina and Michigan, and we were obviously looking at Governor Romney in New Hampshire and Michigan. And looking at those inherent strengths, and looking at the financial costs of running in all those states at the same time, we had to do what we thought was ultimately in the best interest of the candidate, that best fits the candidate.”
Yes, Giuliani’s rivals were strong in those states. But Giuliani was, at times, strong, too. According to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, he was second in Iowa as late as the first of October. He was second in New Hampshire as late as the first of December. He was leading in Michigan as late as mid-December. And he was tied for the lead in South Carolina at the same time. All those competitive positions were gone by the end of December.
I asked two long-time Republican strategists who are now affiliated with rival campaigns — Vin Weber with the Romney campaign and Charlie Black with McCain — what they made of the situation. Both seemed genuinely baffled by Giuliani’s course. “All the campaigns, including ours, were a little bit wrong in thinking you can win this nomination by some combination of early-state knockouts,” Weber told me yesterday. “That’s not going to happen. But I think Rudy could have competed — not won, but competed — in all those early states and he’d be a heck of a lot better off now.”
“The only thing you have to go on in presidential politics is history and experience, and the rest is guesswork,” Black told me. “And nobody has decided to start on the fifth primary and gone on to win.”
When looking for the cause of Giuliani’s tumble, many observers point to the November 28 publication of a story on the website The Politico that said Giuliani “billed obscure city agencies for tens of thousands of dollars in security expenses amassed during the time when he was beginning an extramarital relationship with future wife Judith Nathan in the Hamptons, according to previously undisclosed government records.” The suggestion was that Giuliani moved the money around to hide his affair, and the story attracted tremendous attention and threw Giuliani on the defensive.
He handled it badly, first attempting to ignore it, and then denying it without offering his own explanation of events. But it turned out that, whatever Giuliani’s clumsiness in dealing with it, the story wasn’t completely accurate. Looking into Giuliani’s expenses, the New York Times published an article — buried deep inside the paper — saying that news reports “questioned, whether, as mayor, Mr. Giuliani tried to hide his visits to Judith Nathan in the Hamptons by burying the associated security costs in the budgets of obscure mayoral agencies like the Loft Board. The answer is not likely, according to a review of the city records originally cited as the basis for the assertion.” The Politico defended its reporting, but the fact is that if the original article had been fully accurate, it would not have attracted as much attention as it did.
But the damage was done. Although The Politico story wasn’t the only cause, Giuliani’s national poll rating began to slide shortly after the ensuing controversy took hold. According to the RCP polls average, he had a significant national lead on the first of December. Three weeks later, he was sliding toward second place. By the first weeks of January, with Giuliani finishing far back in the early caucuses and primaries, the one-time frontrunner was in fourth place.
“I hope voters would look past that [story],” Mike DuHaime told me. “There’s no doubt that that story seemed to be a half-story to begin with. The coverage it got was not nearly what the coverage was when the story was corrected, that’s for sure.”
Now, whatever the reason, Giuliani is fighting for his life in Florida. His lead is gone there, too, and he’s currently in third place behind John McCain and Mitt Romney. Giuliani says he is optimistic about his chances: “We are going to come from behind, we’re going to win here in Florida,” he said at last night’s debate. When I asked DuHaime what comes next, he ticked off a list of February 5 states — New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, California, Missouri, Delaware — that Giuliani believes he can win.
But at this point, a Giuliani victory would be an enormous comeback, not the presidential-style march to victory that Giuliani originally envisioned. And if it doesn’t happen, Giuliani will find himself the author of perhaps the most second-guessed campaign strategy in history.
– Byron York is National Review’s White House correspondent.