COCOA BEACH, FLA.— Mired in third place in most Florida polls, Rudy Giuliani, the one-time favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, is hoping the high road will deliver him from an embarrassing defeat. The former New York mayor is steering clear of the hair-pulling brawls between the twin front-runners, Sen. John McCain and Mitt Romney, while painting himself as a man of gravitas, eager to help Florida—even while offering no pretense that he is of Florida.
On Sunday, in an arena-size Ron Jon Surf Shop festooned with psychedelic surfboards and garb for those who hang loose, Giuliani appeared in his signature New York power suit—blue with a blue tie—and delivered a lecture on what it means to be president. With Romney in the headlines for assailing McCain as "dishonest" about the former Massachusetts governor's statements on Iraq, Giuliani told a cheering crowd of several hundred Floridians that, "The presidential election is not about name calling. It's not about 'gotcha.'" Then, Giuliani delivered the message he hopes will seal the deal here, his experience guiding New York City through the aftermath of September 11. "The most important thing of this presidential election is protecting the country from Islamic terrorism," he said. Giuliani's message—tax breaks, a national catastrophic fund for victims of hurricanes or terrorist attacks, a reinvigorated space program—resonated with the gathered locals, who periodically punctuated his 20-minute stump speech with cries of "Rudy!" and waved signs proclaiming "Florida is Rudy Country."
While Giuliani is trying to stay above the fray, as would befit a presumed front-runner, he is in the fight of his political life. Packed with former Northeasterners, the Sunshine State seemed to smile on Giuliani. But Florida isn't necessarily Rudy Country anymore. At least in the polls, the candidate is suffering from his decision to ignore or drop out of the five early contests. McCain is collecting endorsements by the armful after his win in South Carolina on January 19. Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American who is revered in his community, threw his support behind McCain last week. In perhaps an even bigger blow to Giuliani, on Saturday, popular Gov. Charlie Crist, whom many thought would stay neutral, also gave his blessing to McCain, dominating local news coverage. And after personally being courted by all the major candidates, Bill Bunting, state chairman of the NRA, also publicly backed McCain. Romney, who has as many wins under his belt as McCain—two—seems to have found his groove on economic issues. A Rasmussen poll released Saturday shows Romney with a six-point lead over McCain. Giuliani is a distant third.
But America's mayor argues that he's still the man to beat. He has made a veritable second home in the state, having spent at least 50 days here campaigning. As early as March, Giuliani had 14 full-time staffers on the ground organizing support. In the final stretch, the number of staffers has reached 50. The campaign also claims 6,100 active volunteers—many high school and college volunteers from across the state—working phone banks and knocking on doors. One McCain official guffawed at the number of volunteers, calling it "rank fiction." But one thing is indisputable: Since the beginning, the Giuliani campaign has pushed absentee and early voting in the hopes of locking down support. Since September, Giuliani staffers have encouraged all Republican voters to request absentee ballots. The campaign then followed up with chase calls to urge them to complete the ballot. Karen Unger, a senior adviser, says "hundreds of thousands" of voters were contacted. The hope is that most of those people voted for Giuliani before wins by other candidates in early states drew away his support. The campaign did its own polling on how many absentee voters picked Giuliani but won't release an exact number. "We feel very confident," Unger says. "We have literally banked hundreds of thousands of votes with early and absentee voting." Nearly 400,000 Republicans had already voted by Friday.
While absentee ballots have been available for some time, early voting at actual sites began on January 14, well after Giuliani's slide in the polls. Analysts wonder how many of those votes he'll actually collect. "An extraordinary ground operation will make up the rest," Unger says. She notes that Giuliani's early presence in the state has afforded his organization far more time than other campaigns to arrange support. Indeed, McCain only recently reopened his Florida offices after early money woes forced him out of the state.