Orlando, Fla. – “If you listen to my opponents, it’s getting kind of nasty,” Rudy Giuliani tells a group — truth be told, a pretty small group — of supporters who have come to a “Women for Rudy” rally at the Rosen Centre Hotel, situated among the amusement parks and rows of hotels a few miles from the Orlando airport. “Governor Romney has accused Senator McCain of being dishonest, and Senator McCain has accused Governor Romney of being in favor of a timetable for retreat, or something like that. I’m not exactly sure of the charges going back and forth, but we don’t want to become like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, right?”
NOOOOOO! yells the crowd.
“If I understand the debate,” Giuliani continues, “the debate is that Sen. McCain doesn’t believe Governor Romney has enough national-security experience, and Governor Romney doesn’t think that Sen. McCain has enough experience on the economy. Well, you know something? I’ve got both. That’s why I’m the best choice.”
More cheers. But you know the Giuliani campaign — the campaign that was the national frontrunner for nearly all of 2007 — is in trouble when Giuliani seeks to define himself, not by his own record, but by the two frontrunners here in Florida, John McCain and Mitt Romney. You don’t like Candidate Number One or Candidate Number Two? Well, give me a try! And you really know the campaign is in trouble when Giuliani, the archetypal man-in-charge with an extraordinary record of accomplishment in New York City, morphs into the John Edwards of the GOP race, tut-tutting the bickering between the two leaders. But that’s the way things are going for the mayor here in Florida.
The RealClearPolitics average of polls counted 41 surveys taken in Florida between February 25, 2007 and December 2, 2007. Giuliani led in every one of them, by margins as high as 23 points. And not just a long time ago — in one CNN survey taken in the last week of November, Giuliani led by 21 points. And yet today — 60 days later — Giuliani is nearly 10 points behind the frontrunners.
At the Orlando event, Giuliani team members tell me the crowd is unusually small — the room isn’t all that big, and it isn’t filled — and they say the mayor has lots of larger, and very enthusiastic, crowds as he travels around the state. More than one Giuliani aide seems a little baffled by the contrast between the fall in the polls and the good-sized crowds out on the trail. Which is the true indicator of Giuliani’s support? They choose to believe the crowds.
But the polls, in this state at least, are more than just guesses. Florida allows early voting, and people have been casting their votes for quite a while now. That means pollsters, when they call a voter, can ask if that voter has already cast a ballot and, if so, for whom. One recent poll, from Insider Advantage, taken on Saturday, found that of 692 people surveyed, 171, or about 25 percent, had already voted. Of them, 16 percent said they had voted for Giuliani, versus the 29 and 30 percent who said they had voted for McCain and Romney, respectively. So the hope that Giuliani’s supporters had — that early voters might have chosen Rudy before his popularity began to sag so badly — might not be working out.
But Giuliani has his supporters — New York stalwarts like Rep. Peter King and former Rep. Susan Molinari, Florida attorney general Bill McCollum, and former Massachusetts governor Paul Celluci. And — this doesn’t exactly follow — Jon Voight. The actor, who was born in Yonkers, New York, is a staple at Giuliani events in Florida these days. When I ask him why, as a former Democrat, he admires Giuliani, he praises the pre-9/11 Rudy as much as the post-9/11 Rudy. “New York was in disrepair, really terrible disrepair,” Voight tells me. “I experienced it firsthand, I knew how dangerous it was, how terrible the economics became — it looked impossible to turn that around, and he did.”
It’s perfectly passable surrogate-speak. But Voight’s biggest asset to Giuliani is that he is much better at pressing the flesh than the candidate himself. Voight shakes a lot of hands, takes a lot of pictures, jokes around, and goes off in search of people to talk to in the rare event that no one has approached him. And he’s more than just outgoing; he is, well, theatrical. When a man says he is a fan of the Fair Tax, Voight grabs him by both lapels, eyes bulging out, begging, “Stay with us! Stay with us! We don’t want to lose you!” At 69 — still two years younger than John McCain — Voight might want to run for something someday.
But first there is the Giuliani campaign. And it’s a struggle. This weekend, Giuliani told USA Today that “rumors of my demise are premature.” Other than “Not guilty, your honor,” those are perhaps the words most dreaded by any politician. And yet that is where Rudy Giuliani finds himself on the day before the Florida primary.