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Rudy Defying Central Dogma

A Giuliani fan in Florida. (AP).

By Joel Achenbach
FORT MYERS, Fla., 10:40 a.m. -- Just landed in Southwest Florida to chase Rudy Giuliani, who will speak shortly to the Shell Point retirement community -- a voter farm, if you're a presidential candidate. There are retirement communities down here roughly the size of a small New England state. The campaign has become a numbers game, which may play right into the hands of the former mayor of New York.

Giuliani is certainly in trouble at the moment. He spent most of 2007 as the GOP front-runner in the polls, but in the past six weeks he's been about as high-profile as J.D. Salinger. He's vanished into the swamps of Florida, like a boa or a Nile monitor lizard. Every so often he has emerged to jump in front of a camera somewhere, or stay in a swank hotel (how many thousands did he spend for that suite in San Francisco?), but his campaign has generally been so unorthodox that you wonder if some donors might consider a lawsuit.

Frank Luntz, the pollster, pointed out at a photo op in Nashua, N.H., a week ago that Rudy's small handful of supporters couldn't even chant correctly. They just couldn't quite get the rhythm right on "ROO-DEE."

But Giuliani's strategy, though unorthodox, is not entirely crazy. He may yet prove to be a genius. He's challenging the Central Dogma of modern presidential politics. That's the one that says you have to spend months campaigning in Iowa amid the corn and soybeans, talking to citizens in towns with names like Stover, Chaffville and Swineburg.

You must drive tractors and cite the virtues of the latest genetically modified seed corn that is capable of growing in outer space. Then, when you Exceed Expectations, you ride your new momentum into New Hampshire, bonding with flinty characters in towns named Squilchem, Flemborough and Scratchy Notch. Your New Hampshire victory will then propel you, with Newtonian certainty, to the nomination. That's the "retail politics" system, and it has generally worked for many years, bolstered in large part by political reporters who love the candidate-on-the-hay-bale paradigm.

There's just one problem: The entire population of New Hampshire is just barely bigger than that of Palm Beach County, Fla., (and not nearly as big as Broward or Miami-Dade). If the new rule of Campaign '08 is Let The Voters Decide (see my Achenblog post this morning), it might make sense to diminish the significance of a few early-voting states.

Rudy's strategy treats the Iowa/NH system as little more than a cult. Rudy is even skipping Michigan and South Carolina. He's all-in with Florida. A Republican friend likens it to a football team skipping the entire regular season and the first couple of playoff games and finally taking the field in the Super Bowl.

Looming over everything -- and frankly, haunting the dreams of many of us -- is Super Duper Tuesday, Feb. 5. It's an event so huge and imponderable that within my news organization there's been debate about the precise number of primaries and caucuses on that date (I think we're going with 24). If you read the news coverage, we're still focusing on the next couple of contests, rather than on, for example, California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey or any of the states voting on SDT. But win-loss records may not be as important as delegates. Perhaps this whole thing has already become a delegate-counting contest. Even that most-celebrated political commodity, momentum, may have been consistently overestimated.

Both The Post and the Times today led their front pages with poll stories (even after last week's pollster Waterloo), and one line from the Times's story jumps out:

"Among Democratic primary voters nationally, Mrs. Clinton, of New York, remains the favorite of 42 percent, compare with 27 percent backing Mr. Obama, of Illinois -- essentially unchanged since December."

As though Iowa and New Hampshire didn't matter!

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 14, 2008; 10:54 AM ET
Categories:  Joel's Florida Diary  
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