Politics & Policy

Late to the Game

A frontrunner goes to the back.

Rudy Giuliani was once the national Republican frontrunner. As late as mid-November, he was the frontrunner in Michigan. He now finishes last nationwide.

Now he’s just the odd man out.

Republicans have now held three major primary contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan. And the proud Giuliani has now finished twice behind Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the man he once accused of blaming America for “inviting the attack of 9/11.” He even trails Paul in delegates to this fall’s convention — and the way things are going, he may never catch up. This week, he squeaked out a victory over “uncommitted” and Duncan Hunter. His performance was so bad in Michigan that almost nothing useful can be gleaned about it from the exit polling.

Giuliani’s so-called “late-state strategy” meant that he was to win big in Florida and in the delegate-rich states that vote on February 5. It did not necessarily include victories in the early contests. But neither did it include such dramatic defeats as he has now experienced. After finishing with four percent in Iowa and three percent in Michigan, if Rudy weren’t Rudy, he’d be a footnote. The large leads he once enjoyed in the early states evaporated quickly and before these contests ever took place, putting him at the bottom of the heap in a matter of weeks.

South Carolina will not smile upon Rudy Saturday, even though he led there in late November. Once again, he will be fortunate to defeat Paul and secure a fifth-place finish. Even his Florida firewall is falling apart, with John McCain besting him in the last three polls and a rebounding Romney ready to nibble away at his support as well.

To add insult to injury, Rudy’s “sure thing” in New Jersey is no longer so sure. A Monmouth University poll shows that since September, he has traded a 32-point lead in the Garden State for a four-point deficit against John McCain. And a Survey USA poll now puts him just three points ahead of McCain in his home state of New York.

If he does not win in Nevada — where the latest poll showed him poised to compete — Rudy may have no reason to stay in the race any longer.

What in the world happened to Mayor Giuliani? Some would argue that the recent successes in Iraq have taken his terrorist trump card out of the deck, burying the issue among the back pages. But if that is true, why has the hawkish John McCain experienced a surge? Most Republican primary voters agree with McCain on nothing but Iraq.

Others suggest that by skipping the early states, Rudy miscalculated, voluntarily dropping out of the news cycle for nearly a month after the primary season began. This likely compounded his downfall, giving him no positive news to share about the race during his worst moments of the campaign. But the fundamental problem was that voters who once knew little about him beyond his role on 9/11 started learning about his issues and his messy personal life.

The mortal wound seemed to come with the widely disseminated story about how city taxpayers funded the security coverage so that he could be protected while cheating on his wife. Ironically, much of Rudy’s support went to his political polar-opposite, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. For others, Giuliani suddenly came into focus as a flawed candidate with a potential graveyard of skeletons in his closet that Democrats could later exploit. Bernard Kerik’s indictment contributed mightily to this perception. The pastor was a safer bet.

Giuliani’s strong point was supposed to be his electability — he was going to put New York and Pennsylvania into play this fall. Whatever the merits of that argument, exit polls in both New Hampshire and Michigan suggest that only five percent of primary voters cast their votes based on “electability” anyway.

The biggest problem for Rudy was that his supporters were either reluctant to begin with, or knew very little about their candidate beyond “America’s Mayor.” That is why the shag-fund and Kerik stories were not like Mike Huckabee’s ethics complaints in Arkansas, or McCain’s rhetoric on Michigan manufacturing jobs never returning. The bad press didn’t just hurt Giuliani — it deflated him. It precipitated a massive, nationwide movement of “reluctant Rudy Republicans” to other candidates — especially Huckabee and McCain — putting the frontrunner on his rear in a matter of weeks.

And like those jobs that left Michigan, the voters who left Giuliani at that point were never coming back.

Time will tell — but it’s uphill for the former frontrunner.

— David Fredosso is an NRO staff reporter.

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