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Giuliani isn't swaying them in key state

Ex-N.Y. mayor meets varied groups. Many say that they're not convinced, or they're still waiting to decide.

January 15, 2008|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

FORT MYERS, FLA. — For an hour Monday, Rudolph W. Giuliani passionately made his case to voters seated in the Shell Point retirement community chapel.

He talked of tax cuts and terrorist attacks, of building up the military and cracking down on illegal immigration.

But in the end, he didn't seem to close the deal.

Dozens of the more than 1,000 who attended the town hall event took off before Giuliani finished his speech, leaving rows of seats empty.

"I didn't hear anything I hadn't heard before," said Barbara Vitello, 71. "It's the first time ever I'm going into the [presidential] election not knowing who I'll vote for," she said.

Her 79-year-old husband, Joe, agreed.

As his Republican rivals were campaigning ahead of this week's presidential primaries in Michigan and South Carolina, Giuliani was crisscrossing the Sunshine State.

Florida is crucial to his strategy, and a win in the Jan. 29 primary would give Giuliani momentum going into the Super Tuesday contests on Feb. 5. His campaign recently unveiled several new ads here and has moved dozens of staffers and volunteers into the state to help with absentee balloting.

But political experts have questioned Giuliani's focus on Florida as his national poll numbers have been sliding. Last week, the campaign also announced that about a dozen Giuliani staffers would forgo their pay in January so the money could be used elsewhere.

Since his bus tour began Sunday, the former New York mayor has met with seniors in Fort Myers, a group of affluent voters in Naples and Cuban American worshipers at an evangelical mega-church in Miami.

And, like the Vitellos, many who heard Giuliani were not convinced they should vote for him.

Cindy Lightner, 45, stood at the back of The Bay House, a riverfront restaurant in Naples, where about 200 people gathered Monday for a Giuliani event.

Within the first five minutes, he ridiculed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton and talked of his leadership on Sept. 11 -- two recurring themes in his stump speech. He also talked about tort reform, healthcare, illegal immigration, creating a national catastrophe fund and the "Islamic terrorists' war against us."

Lightner, a teacher, listened intently to his pitch. She said she liked Giuliani's position on abortion rights (he supports them) and what he had said about creating tamper-proof identity cards for immigrants. But Republican rivals Mitt Romney or John McCain could also get her vote.

"I'm still thinking about it," she said.

In Miami's ritzy Coconut Grove neighborhood Sunday, Giuliani stopped the bus to shake hands with people eating brunch outside the Green Street Cafe. But his appearance was disrupted by antiabortion hecklers who followed him to several events.

About an hour later, perspiring in the midday heat, Giuliani rode on a vintage fire truck, waving to thousands of Cuban Americans who had come out for the Three Kings parade in Little Havana.

Staffers had distributed signs saying: "Florida is Rudy Country" to supporters along the route. But there were also shouts of "Hillary" from the crowd and people giving the mayor the thumbs down as he rode by.

That morning, Giuliani also courted Miami's traditionally conservative Cuban American voters during a speech at El Rey Jesus.

Giuliani's remarks to the 7,000-strong congregation were translated into Spanish, and he didn't shy away from the subject of illegal immigration, but he omitted his oft-repeated point about making English mandatory.

"Even in the quest of running for president of the United States, we are all children of God," said Giuliani, who was joined in church by Katherine Harris, the former Florida secretary of state who played a key role in the disputed 2000 presidential recount that won the White House for George W. Bush.

The worshipers clapped at mentions of God but were less enthusiastic about Giuliani's political pitch.

The race, the candidate said, is "a test of faith."

Then he told the congregants that he had come not for their votes but for "something very special and more important. I'm asking for your prayers."

--

louise.roug@latimes.com

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