On the last day of 2007, it’s worth taking a moment to see where the Republican presidential campaign sits as we close two years of prognostication and predictions and start in on the phase where real voters actually begin to weigh in.
The most notable aspect of the race at this point is that our party – which is usually extremely efficient in identifying and anointing a front-runner — has yet to do so. Rudy Giuliani started the year with the inside track on becoming the GOP’s likely nominee, followed by turns taken by Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, Romney again, Mike Huckabee, and most recently, John McCain. But while the Huckabee-Romney battle in Iowa will conclude tonight, it’s unlikely that the final outcome in the Hawkeye State will bring much clarity to the field. Meanwhile, McCain has mounted a mini-surge that has positioned him well on his old stomping grounds in New Hampshire, while Thompson is pushing for a third-place finish that would allow him to stake a claim in South Carolina later this month.
And Giuliani? Last Saturday night, after three campaign events that day across the state of Iowa, Rudy did the smartest thing he could have possibly done to further the prospects of his presidential campaign. He left town.
Earlier this year, even while maintaining a sizable lead in most national polls, the Giuliani campaign made a risky but smart decision to largely bypass Iowa and New Hampshire in order to concentrate their efforts on several larger and more hospitable states that hold primaries several weeks later. It’s a strategy that no candidate of either party has ever attempted, made possible by the greatly compressed schedule in which voters in twenty-seven states will have gone to the polls by the first week of February, and by Giuliani’s national reputation as the hero of September 11. The decision was also necessitated by natural disadvantages for Giuliani in those early states, primarily Iowa, whose caucuses are disproportionately influenced by religious and social conservative voters for whom abortion is a more determinant issue than terrorism. So it made sense for Giuliani to hold back and instead direct his resources toward Florida’s January 29 primary, and New York, New Jersey, and California, whose voters cast their ballots on February 5. These states have all elected Republican governors in recent years whose mix of tough-on-crime and fiscal conservatism and social centrism mirror Giuliani’s ideological makeup: combined they offer a treasure trove of convention delegates that could propel him to the nomination.
But sitting out the first round of primaries holds significant risk as well. No Republican has ever been nominated without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire, victories which generate a level of voter enthusiasm, media coverage, and fundraising dollars to sweep through the rest of the primary calendar. The decision to wait for the more moderate primary voters in later states requires nerves of steel. Resisting the back-seat driving from reporters, pundits and other purveyors of conventional wisdom who will spend the next few weeks second-guessing the strategy at every opportunity will test even the strongest of convictions.
Not surprisingly, Giuliani’s support in the early states has plummeted, as their voters align with candidates with whom they have become more familiar over months of face-to-face campaigning. Of greater concern is the inevitable tightening of the race in national surveys and in his large- state strongholds. In California, Giuliani’s lead over Huckabee, his nearest competitor, has shrunk to single digits, mirroring trends in other large states. While Giuliani still enjoys a lead in most polls, his rivals have leveraged the attention they’ve received in Iowa and New Hampshire to edge closer in other parts of the country. So last weekend, he rushed back to Iowa for one last day of campaigning before today’s caucuses.
Big mistake. As mentioned earlier, Huckabee and Romney are locked in a death struggle over the social conservative voters who will dominate the caucuses. Even if Giuliani miraculously slid past McCain, Thompson, and Ron Paul to finish third, the news coverage would be dominated by the outcome of the Huckabee-Romney fight and the three-way battle for top honors on the Democratic side. And a showing of fourth place or lower will undermine the Giuliani campaign message that the later, larger states are more important anyway. If Iowa doesn’t matter, what was Rudy doing there only five days before the caucuses?
Despite his efforts to reach out to religious conservatives, Giuliani is at his core, a secular and social moderate who will win or lose this election based on his ability to effectively fight the war against terrorism. And confounding conventional wisdom by charting his own course has been a hallmark of his career from the beginning. So why stop now? Florida and California are much nicer places to spend the month of January than New Hampshire, Michigan, and the other early primary states, especially for a candidate whose greatest strength is drawn from the political center. When the bloodied survivor of a four-way GOP smackdown makes his way down to Florida in late January, Rudy can be waiting there – tanned, rested and ready, with his national security credentials intact. But only if he has the guts to wait.