Giuliani gambles on Florida vote

The Baltimore Sun

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Comparing himself to New York's come-from-behind pro football team, Rudolph W. Giuliani is predicting an upset over his Republican opponents in Florida.

"We have them all lulled into a very false sense of security now," he joked at the final debate before Tuesday's presidential primary, which he has indicated is a must-win for him.

Unlike the Super Bowl-bound Giants, though, the former New York mayor has yet to win a contest this season. In fact, he's barely put points on the scoreboard.

Ever since voting began, the national Republican front-runner for most of last year has been slipping badly. He's won just one or two delegates, depending on who is doing the counting, despite spending more than $50 million.

Unless he can come back in Florida's winner-take-all primary, he may well be on his way to setting a breathtaking new record for presidential futility.

The old standard belongs to another tough-talking Republican candidate, John Connally, whose big-bucks campaign fizzled at the ballot box. A single delegate is all the Texan wound up with after sinking $11 million into a 1980 presidential try.

Giuliani has spent more than 50 campaign days in Florida already, but his effort in the state seems to be stuck in reverse. During the past few days, the doubters have started saying that if he can't make it here, he can't make it anywhere.

The candidate appears undeterred. At campaign events, he couples an upbeat demeanor with a message that has changed little during the past year. He boasts of successes in turning around the nation's largest city and promises to do the same for the rest of the country.

"I believe I offer leadership," he told a small group of voters at a rally in Orlando the other day, standing in front of a backdrop that proclaimed Florida as "Rudy Country."

He's campaigned as though he were running for governor of the Sunshine State, dropping favors along the way aimed at various constituencies. He's toured the Everglades to promote continued federal environmental spending and visited Cape Canaveral while committing to increase NASA's budget.

Alone among the Republican contenders, he's pushing a plan that would reduce homeowners' insurance rates in Florida by getting taxpayers across the country to subsidize the risks posed by hurricanes and other natural disasters. He's also dangling a sweeping tax-cut proposal, which he calls the largest in history.

Again this week, Giuliani said that he "needs to win" Florida, the biggest state to vote so far and the gateway to the massive wave of Super Tuesday primaries Feb. 5. But the latest polling shows him running third behind Mitt Romney and John McCain, and falling further back as Election Day nears.

It's a pattern that's been repeated in other states, where the more he campaigned, the worse he seemed to do.

He's also suffered from negative publicity, some of it inaccurate, about police protection during his extramarital affair with Judith Nathan, now his third wife, as well as coverage of his friendship with former New York police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, a former business partner now under federal indictment.

But his biggest problem may have been his failure to compete more aggressively in the early states, a plan hatched largely by a tight circle of loyal New York advisers who lacked presidential campaign experience.

His highly publicized strategy of waiting until Florida has bought him time in the wide-open Republican race, but he did make stabs at competing elsewhere.

His half-hearted try in Iowa produced a sixth-place finish, while a much more extensive, and expensive, campaign in New Hampshire wound up barely nudging out Ron Paul for fourth place.

Last weekend, Giuliani received 2 percent of the vote and finished sixth in South Carolina, a state he initially tried to set up as a Southern firewall, opening several campaign offices and visiting more than a dozen times before bailing out in the final weeks before the election.

Falling back on Florida, he's worked hard to build support among expatriates from the Northeast.

"I identify with him, you know?" said Todd Day, 40, a transplanted Yankee who works in the advertising business in Orlando and says he's still undecided.

With campaign funds running short, Giuliani has been forced to divert some of his time from campaigning to fundraising in recent days. He's being outspent on TV by Romney and losing voters concerned about terrorism to McCain.

His inability to become a factor in the early contests has kept him out of the news, which was why campaign veterans said all along that starting late in Florida wouldn't work.

"It's so hard to sit on the sidelines for a month while everybody else is giving victory speeches," said Charles W. "Tre" Evers, a Republican consultant in Orlando.

That Giuliani still has an outside chance reflects the unusually volatile nature of the '08 contest, in which three candidates have divided the first six contests and no one has pulled away yet.

He says he has "no plans" to quit if he loses Florida, and with primaries one week later in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, he could rebound in the delegate count. But the latest opinion surveys show that he's in danger of getting embarrassed there, too.

Giuliani campaigned yesterday in Miami's Little Havana, home to many of the state's Hispanic voters, who could cast one in 10 primary votes. Once again, it was a story of missed opportunities, according to local politicians.

Among Cuban-Americans, Giuliani's support "has withered away, and a lot of them are going to flock to McCain," said David Custin, a south Florida campaign strategist. Giuliani "shot himself in the foot" by abandoning the early states, and "everybody here witnessed his butt getting kicked by Ron Paul."

In yet another ghoulish development for Giuliani, one of his main opponents in the race appeared to be reacting to him more out of pity than fear in the debate the other night - perhaps with an eye toward gaining Giuliani's support.

McCain came to Giuliani's defense after the former mayor was questioned about a New York Times editorial that excoriated him for exploiting the Sept. 11 attacks and being "a narrow, obsessively secretive, vindictive man" whose "arrogance and bad judgment are breathtaking."

Taking Giuliani's side against his hometown paper, McCain praised him as "an American hero." McCain added that he respected all of his Republican opponents, "and I intend to respect them both during and after this campaign is over."

paul.west@baltsun.com

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