For Giuliani Supporters, Florida Is a Bitter End

Florida Republicans blame Giuliani's loss on his risky strategy of focusing only on the Sunshine State.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani salutes supporters as his wife Judith Giuliani (L) claps during a post primary campaign rally at the Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando January 29, 2008 in Orlando, Florida. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is the projected winner of the Florida Republican primary, followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his wife Judith Giuliani during a post primary campaign rally in Orlando, Florida.

By + More

ORLANDO— Rudy Giuliani tamed New York, but in the battle for the White House he couldn't beat the system. After conceding the first five contests of the race—and watching his rivals Sen. John McCain and former Gov. Mitt Romney emerge as front-runners—Giuliani failed to convince Floridians that he was still a viable candidate. After his third-place finish, he is expected to drop out of the race and endorse McCain today.

Paul Hufstutler, a custom home builder, cast his vote for Mitt Romney at the leafy Azalea Lane Recreation Center yesterday afternoon. He liked Giuliani. But "I just think it became a McCain-Romney (contest)," said Hufstutler. "I think a vote for anyone but those two would have been lost." Hufstutler voted for Romney. At a McCain rally on Monday, Pam Crotty assailed Giuliani for making "probably one of the biggest political mistakes by waiting to get into the primaries." Like many others, she observed, "He was ahead in the polls. He waited too late."

Even before the polls closed last night, a pall had settled over the campaign. When Giuliani made a surprise swing through his Orlando headquarters around 5:30 p.m., he offered no pep talk or rousing speech, not even a prediction of victory when ecstatic volunteers broke into an incantation of his name. He made sure to shake the hands of everyone present and even signed a few baseballs—just as he had for members of the press a day earlier, sparking widespread speculation that this ballgame was over.

That morning in Miami, Giuliani had been sanguine. "We are going to win today," he told reporters. "Polls and predictions have been wrong." He and others have consistently pointed to the miscalculations made by pollsters in New Hampshire, where Hillary Clinton staged an upset of Barack Obama. His supporters followed suit. At a Cocoa Beach rally on Sunday, Sylvia Palmeri announced that "the polls are full of baloney." Not this time. Consistently, they showed Giuliani slipping in popularity after Romney and McCain and even dark horse Huckabee racked up wins in early nominating contests.

Giuliani spent time and money in Iowa and particularly New Hampshire, but he dropped out early enough to claim that he was not in the competition there. Analysts widely agreed that Florida was a good bet for the socially liberal, pro-choice mayor of eclectic New York. By far it's the closest mirror of the general electorate, full of snowbirds and sun worshippers from the Midwest and Northeast and with a sizable population of blacks and Hispanics. But it came too late in the game, weeks after contests in states deemed unfriendly to his particular brand of big-city Republicanism. His formidable lead here and nationwide began to evaporate after McCain seized New Hampshire. Yesterday, Jim Greer, chair of the Florida Republican Party, admitted he was skeptical of Giuliani's chances. "His time here was well received, but not having national media exposure will adversely affect him."

Giuliani banked on a considerable absentee and early vote effort to nab the win. When news broke one million Floridians had cast early or absentee votes, supporters were thrilled. The total matched the entire 2000 primary turnout. But not enough of that enthusiasm went Giuliani's way.

At his primary night celebration at the blinding theme park of a hotel called Loews Portofino, attached to Universal Orlando Studios, a thin crowd of supporters competed with attendant media for numbers. They broke into cheers when Fox News flashed an image of their man along with early returns after the first polls closed at 7 p.m.—though it immediately showed Giuliani in third place. By 8:30 p.m. Timothy Gruters, a Sarasota accountant, confessed that a third-place finish seemed inevitable. "The McCain wave just came crashing through," he said. Nick Autiello, a 17-year-old volunteer from Orlando, who watched the returns with dismay, nevertheless expressed confidence that Giuliani would stay in the fight. "I don't think he'll give up. He will try in California. He will win in New York. He has a gigantic base in New Jersey."