McCain Leads Giuliani in N.Y., N.J.

Despite predictions of Giuliani as the one to beat, it's changing now with McCain climbing in the polls

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Young supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton cheer at a campaign rally at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, NJ.

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The headlines on the polls out of New York were powerful: "Rudy Giuliani Set to Win Big Delegate Blocs," with predictions he would sweep the February 5 Republican primaries in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. For those of you counting, that's a whopping 183 delegates in the winner-take-all contests.

But what a difference a few months can make. This week, those dramatic October headlines were replaced by grim news for the former New York mayor. The Quinnipiac University Poll now shows that instead of holding a 33-percentage-point lead over his closest competitor in New York—back then it was Sen. Fred Thompson—Giuliani is in a dead heat with Sen. John McCain. And his trajectory is on the downswing, Quinnipiac pollster Maurice "Mickey" Carroll says, while McCain's is going up.

McCain, who after a midsummer meltdown rebuilt his effort and won the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, now also leads in New Jersey, where Giuliani once topped Thompson by 36 points. (Thompson has quit the race.) And in Connecticut, a Hartford Courant survey released last week showed McCain outpolling the former front-runner by a whopping 23 percentage points.

Giuliani's once highflying campaign is hanging by a thread, and he has slid to third place in voter surveys in Florida, where Tuesday's primary is his must-win. But his plummet in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, where he had established his celebrity after 9/11 as "America's mayor," has been nothing short of shocking. "To paraphrase," says Carroll, "New York is his home state, and if he can't make it here, he can't make it anywhere. He's had a bad, bad month everywhere, no question about it."

The other prize that the former New York mayor was banking on taking home February 5—California and its trove of 173 delegates—now also appears out of reach, barring a dramatic revival in the next 10 days. He dominated the polls there into early December but now badly trails the steadily climbing McCain and is slipping against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Can he still do it? Mathematically, it's possible, a GOP strategist said. But he'd have to win Florida and leave the Sunshine State with a pretty big burst of momentum—a phenomenon that has been difficult to come by during this muddied political season. And his post-Florida bump would have to be historic to overcome what ultimately may be a failed strategy to put money and time into winning later contests. "People want to see you compete," the strategist said. "You can't get to the Super Bowl by taking a bye in every game—just ask the New York Giants." (The Giants will be playing in the Super Bowl two days before the February 5 Super-Duper Tuesday.) Giuliani pledged this week to compete in the February 5 contests no matter what happens between now and then.

On the Democratic side, the new polls show New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has maintained a commanding 2-to-1 lead over Barack Obama in New York, where her organization dominates the landscape. "She seems to have New York sewn up," Carroll says.

Clinton is also comfortably ahead in New Jersey, though her lead over Obama has narrowed to about 18 percentage points. And Michael Murphy, an Obama spokesman in New Jersey, says the "electorate here is still extremely volatile."

"Polls have been notoriously inaccurate and deceptive this year for whatever reason," he says. "We are not discouraged." With delegates distributed proportionally in the Democratic contests, Obama—while perhaps not expected to win New York, where 127 delegates are up for grabs, or New Jersey, with 106 delegates—will do well in some districts, says Murphy, a lawyer and former gubernatorial candidate. And so he could well come out of February 5 with a healthy tally of delegates and an ability to take the contest into March. "No one is suggesting at this point that he wins New Jersey, but it's a competitive state," he said.

In Connecticut, with 60 delegates, the recent Hartford Courant poll had Clinton preferred by 41 percent of those surveyed and Obama by 27 percent. Again, for those of you counting, with 5½ contests already on the books—the other half, South Carolina's Democratic primary, is tomorrow— the delegate tally (including nonbinding contests) looks like this: Clinton leads with 210 ;Obama has 123; and John Edwards trails in third with 52. On the Republican side, it's Romney, 72; McCain, 38; Mike Huckabee, 29; and Giuliani, 2. It takes 2,025 delegates to win the Democratic nomination and 1,191 for the GOP nod.