Giuliani Goes Big, Not Early
Nobody is playing the expectations game more aggressively these days than Rudy Giuliani. Usually it's the underdog who plays this game, not the big dog. In so many ways, the 2008 cycle is different.
Never has a national front-runner's campaign team argued publicly that their candidate could lose the first three contests in the nomination battle and still emerge as the winner. That, however, is what Mike DuHaime, Giuliani's campaign manager, did in a conference call with reporters on Monday.
"Are you guys confident that you guys could perhaps go 0 in 3 out the gates and still be strong in Florida in February?" a reporter on the call asked DuHaime.
He replied, "Yes, I am confident of that."
For some time now DuHaime and other Giuliani strategists have been telling people they were pursuing a strategy unlike that used by any other candidate in recent nomination battles.
This is a strategy that starts with Feb. 5, when 20 or more states will hold contests, and works backwards to the front of the calendar, rather than starting with Iowa and New Hampshire and works forward. It is also a strategy that seems on its face to prize the accumulation of delegates over momentum.
For Giuliani's team, the real battle for the nomination appears to begin on Jan. 29, when Florida holds its primary, rather than on Jan. 3, when Iowa holds its caucus. DuHaime argues that Florida is the first big delegate prize of the GOP race, with 57 awarded to the winner of the state.
"We believe that whoever wins Florida will have a delegate count lead
going into" Feb. 5, he said.
DuHaime long has seen Feb. 5 as a day tailor-made for Giuliani -- a day when a number of the nation's largest states will hold primaries, including several in the former New York mayor's home region. All together, 1,038 delegates will be distributed on Feb. 5 alone.
Giuliani's advisers see him as the regional favorite to rack up victories in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware, which together will award more than 200 delegates on a winner-take-all basis. Add that to Florida and Giuliani would be a fifth of the way to the nomination.
But there are more big prizes available that day as well, with allocation of delegates by the winner of a state's congressional districts. Those states include California, Illinois and Missouri, where Giuliani's team believes he is well positioned.
There are other states with primaries that day -- Georgia, for example, where a southern candidate like Fred Thompson or Mike Huckabee, if they're viable at that point, would be favored. And some states like Utah where Mitt Romney has a clear edge. But on the whole, the Giuliani team likes the way the calendar sets up for them.
"[As] you start to do this as a delegate game and start to look at places where the mayor is very strong and look at where the other candidates are strong, this very much lines up very favorably right now for us," DuHaime said.
But what about the early states? Veterans of past and present presidential campaigns doubt the Giuliani assertion that he can lose Iowa, lose New Hampshire and lose Michigan and win the nomination. What they know is that winning -- or losing -- early can have a profound effect on the shape of a nomination race.
In 2000, George Bush saw what looked like an insurmountable lead in South Carolina evaporate overnight after McCain beat him soundly in New Hampshire. Bush won that primary but only after a monumental fight. Howard Dean, who was considered the presumptive nominee before Iowa in 2004 never recovered from his loss to John Kerry in that state.
"I am very skeptical they can lose two or three in a row and still be a front-runner," one strategist said in an email. "I think they are delusional. Yes this year is different with no logical conservative being embraced by both sides of the movement, but this is where a real campaign strategy and a little luck will pick the winner."
Terry Nelson, who was political director for the Bush reelection campaign and for a time John McCain's campaign manager, said in an email Tuesday, "I do think the calendar has changed things, but that doesn't mean that the fundamental physics have been changed. Winning provides momentum. Momentum means money. And you just can't play on Feb. 5 if you don't have cash."
When I asked John Weaver, who was McCain's chief strategist, whether Giuliani's advisers were right about winning the nomination while losing the early states, he emailed back this reply: "They don't know. They hope so, I suppose. If one candidate won those three, I would say no. If it became a pile up with Romney winning one, McCain one, for example, then maybe it would be such a jumble the momentum rules wouldn't apply. But I wouldn't count on it."
It's doubtful Giuliani's advisers are counting on it either. What their conference call did was attempt to build expectations for Giuliani's rivals in the early states while putting them as low as possible for the former mayor. What has been clear for some time, however, is that their strategy also aims to spring a surprise early to blunt the momentum of Giuliani's main rivals and establish him early as the one to beat.
Given the fluidity of the races in Iowa and New Hampshire, that may be a shrewd strategy. Romney leads the polls in both those states. But in Iowa, Huckabee is coming on strong. Thompson has been unimpressive so far but on Tuesday got the National Right to Life Committee endorsement and has started TV ads in Iowa. In New Hampshire, McCain and Giuliani have clear strength and could cause Romney problems there.
Giuliani has spent far less time in Iowa and New Hampshire than Romney and has done no television advertising. But he presumably has plenty of money to run a late blitz in those states and he has been sending direct mail pieces for some time to voters in both states. He may be less visible but he is playing seriously -- and his advisers believe he can actually win New Hampshire.
What they're hoping is that, though they tout him as the national front-runner, any early victory will be treated as exceeding expectations, rather than merely meeting them. If they're clever enough to pull that off, Giuliani's Feb. 5 strategy will look brilliant. But if one of his rivals -- and Romney is right now best positioned for this -- wins the first three, the Republican race won't look like it does today. That's when DuHaime's theory will be put to the test.
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