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Giuliani falls far, even in Florida

His decision to abandon early-voting states looks like a 'major strategic blunder,' observers say.

January 24, 2008|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

ESTERO, FLA. — After dominating the Republican presidential race for nearly a year, Rudolph W. Giuliani has faced nothing but defeat in the opening contests: He finished fourth in New Hampshire and sixth in Iowa, Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina.

With time running short, no sign of a turnaround has emerged. He has lost his front-runner's perch in California, a new Field Poll has found. Other surveys show sharp drops for Giuliani in Florida, New Jersey and New York, his home state.

All but ignored as rivals John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee have racked up victories, the normally combative former New York mayor has taken an uncharacteristically subdued approach to recovery. At a rally here on Florida's southwest coast Wednesday, he shied away from taking on opponents, apart from calling himself the best choice for those who support tax cuts and reduced disaster insurance rates.

For weeks, Giuliani has staked his campaign on winning Florida's primary on Tuesday. Whatever the results, his stumbles of recent weeks have raised questions about how someone who led the Republican race for so long could have fallen so far and so fast.

"It really is one of the most amazing collapses," said Charles H. Franklin, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin.

Giuliani has dropped from first to fourth place in national polls in recent weeks.

By many accounts, his decision to abandon Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina was ill-advised. He campaigned in all three states for months, most often in New Hampshire. He spent millions of dollars on television and radio ads in New Hampshire and Iowa. He mailed campaign brochures to thousands of voters in both states. Then, he gave up and shifted focus to Florida.

"I think we're looking at just a major strategic blunder," said Bruce F. Berg, chairman of the political science department at Fordham University in New York. "He essentially took his name off the table."

Though Giuliani could still win Florida and capture the nomination, some party leaders say he has proved the importance of gaining momentum in early-voting states.

"Being out of the news cycle seems to be a very dangerous calculation," said Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party.

Beyond his diminished media presence as campaign coverage reached a peak, Giuliani's string of losses also made it harder for him to raise money. Top aides began working without pay this month. On Tuesday, Giuliani took a break from campaigning in Florida to raise money in New York. In an e-mail soliciting contributions on Wednesday, he sought to reassure donors.

"From Day One, the liberal media has criticized my strategy of focusing on delegate-rich states like Florida," he wrote. "An unprecedented primary calendar called for an unconventional strategy. And it has paid off in a big way."

Giuliani's plummet in state and national polls started in the fall, accelerating after the corruption indictment of Bernard B. Kerik, a former business partner and New York police commissioner whom he had recommended to President Bush for the job of Homeland Security secretary.

"His whole claim to fame is his strong judgment and capacity to lead, but when you start picking up the rock, there have been things that have crawled out that aren't very favorable to Giuliani," said political scientist Darrell West of Brown University.

Also troublesome for Giuliani: the shift of the campaign's focus from the Iraq war to the nation's economic troubles.

"This was someone who really ran his campaign on security and terrorism issues, and as security and terrorism issues get eclipsed by the economy, obviously he's losing his audience," said Franklin, who is co-developer of the nonpartisan, which tracks opinion polls.

In Florida, Giuliani is working to build a diverse coalition of support. His campaign is targeting Republican former New Yorkers, many of them in the West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale areas of South Florida. He hopes to gain considerable support from Jewish, Italian American and Cuban American voters. Other key constituencies include moderate Republicans in suburban tracts along central Florida's Interstate 4 between Tampa and Daytona Beach.

In a state ravaged by hurricanes in recent years, Giuliani has played up his support for a national catastrophe fund aimed at cutting home insurance rates for storms, earthquakes and terrorist attacks.

He is counting on a Florida win to vault him back into the top tier of candidates competing Feb. 5 in coast-to-coast contests in more than 20 states.

"If Rudy Giuliani wins on Tuesday," Franklin said, "that would be the kind of shocking comeback that could propel him to get yet another good look on Super Tuesday."


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