ORLANDO—When former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani settled on his unorthodox strategy to win the GOP presidential nomination—ignore failures in early primary states, then win later and often—political historians and purveyors of conventional wisdom snorted.
Can't be done, they said. Serious candidates have to win in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina to be players. And up until Mitt Romney's decisive victory over John McCain in last week's Michigan GOP primary, it seemed the skeptics had it right. Giuliani's decision to stake his future here in the state's January 29 primary kept him off the front pages while opponents spent the month picking up wins and basking in media attention. Campaign money dried up, top aides gave up pay, and the former mayor's once substantial lead in national polls disappeared.
The biggest celebrity in the GOP race found himself battling Texas Congressman Ron Paul for fourth place in early primaries—and not always coming out ahead. But when Romney captured Michigan, becoming the third GOP candidate to win a contest and blunting McCain's momentum from his New Hampshire victory, Giuliani's strategy wasn't looking so bad. "The race is wide open," says Mike DuHaime, the former mayor's campaign manager. "We realized early on that this was just going to be different than any other campaign in the past."
But even Giuliani's staunchest supporters say his political survival hinges on winning Florida before going into the February 5 "Tsunami Tuesday," when contests will be held in nearly two dozen states, including delegate-rich California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey. "He had a good start here," said Bill Donegan, Giuliani's central Florida chairman, at a recent meeting of the city's Tiger Bay Club, a bipartisan group of business and political leaders. "There's been erosion. He has to win Florida."
Though Giuliani enjoys strong support among the estimated 1.5 million transplanted New Yorkers here, many in retirement communities in the south, polls showed him locked in a tight battle with McCain, Romney, and Mike Huckabee, the insurgent Christian conservative who won Iowa. With opponents battling in other states, the former mayor has largely had Florida to himself, but he has suffered from being out of the national limelight. "The only time anyone mentions Giuliani is to ask what happened to him," says Boca Raton-based presidential historian Robert Watson.
Giuliani is selling himself on the stump with a proposal for tax cuts, talk about easing property insurance rates, and his bona fides as a crime fighter and leader of New York post-9/11. But his liberal views on social issues don't play well with conservative voters in the northern reaches of the state, says Lew Oliver, chairman of the Orange County Republicans. The mayor's luster has also dimmed with concerns about his personal life, the millions he earned in a consulting business from some questionable clients, and his past association with ne'er-do-wells like Bernard Kerik, his indicted former police commissioner and consulting partner.
9/11 failures. And last week, his $50 million-and-counting campaign began to be dogged by retired members of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which has challenged the Giuliani-as-a-9/11-hero narrative promoted by the campaign. "We've been waiting for Florida, waiting for him," said the union's president, Harold Schaitberger. "And wherever he goes, we'll be there trying to make sure our perspective of his failed leadership is heard." The union blames the former mayor for outdated radios that failed on 9/11 and for suspending the search at ground zero when hundreds of firefighters were still missing.
Giuliani's toughest challenge will most likely come from McCain, who has strong support in Florida's extensive military community and is seen by politicos like Oliver as a pragmatic candidate who can best break through the toxic partisanship in Washington. "It's all very well and good to give those chest-thumping speeches, but at the end of the day, we have to make deals with [Democrats] Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid," Oliver says. "Even the most partisan Republicans are coming around and saying it's time to end the bickering." Local Rep. Ric Keller says he considered supporting Giuliani but settled on McCain because "he beats Hillary." That calculation is one many voters are making, Keller says. "The most important dynamic of this race is the emergence of Hillary."
After the Michigan contest, no one is counting out Romney, who has the support of many players in former Gov. Jeb Bush's organization, including former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings. "It's like the tortoise and the hare," she says. "McCain and Huckabee are the hares, and Romney is the tortoise—slow, steady, and methodical." She says Romney's economic message, which resonated in Michigan, does the same in Florida. "Floridians are looking for someone to stabilize this economy—help us in our ability to earn our living and not lose what we have," she said. But Romney and Huckabee may be battling for the same pool of voters here, says Keller, who predicts that there is room for only one social conservative to emerge before the state's primary—Romney, Huckabee, or Fred Thompson. And the survivor will make it a three-way battle with Giuliani and McCain.
"There have been three must-wins—Romney in Michigan, [Fred] Thompson in South Carolina, and Giuliani in Florida," says Oliver. "This is Giuliani's firewall, and everyone is watching closely."
Research assistance provided by Jennifer O'Shea