By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
SANFORD, Fla. Just when it seemed nothing else could go wrong for Rudy Giuliani, the actor Jon Voight got up to introduce the candidate at an airport rally here Monday and found a malfunctioning microphone.
"This is a [inaudible] man," the father of Angelina Jolie told the meager crowd. "I saw firsthand all the greatest of the [inaudible]. . . . I wound up in [inaudible]. . . . But, anyway, I saw the [inaudible]."
Voight finally decided to speak without the microphone. "This thing is not working very well," he observed.
No, it isn't.
Last year, the former New York mayor towered above the Republican presidential field with a lead of more than 2 to 1 over his nearest competitor. But now, after a thumping in the first five presidential contests, he's making a last stand Tuesday in Florida's primary. Polls show he'll be lucky to place third here in the state that Giuliani himself described as his must-win primary.
Cue the vultures.
A 50-strong press corps manned the death watch Monday, Giuliani's final day of campaigning in Florida. His first rally, in the Orlando area, attracted only 100 non-journalists -- and about a quarter of those were foreign visitors participating in a State Department program. The crowd at his second event (in St. Petersburg, where 120 people fit into a corner of a cavernous airport hangar) would have been appropriate for a city council race. The gathering at the next stop, on the tarmac in Fort Myers, was 115.
By the time Giuliani reached Fort Lauderdale in the evening, the crowd had shrunk to 75, producing an embarrassing media-and-staff-to-supporter ratio of about 2 to 1. Giuliani hurried through his speech, then hid himself inside a hangar for 45 minutes.
"I see dead people," ABC News's Jake Tapper wrote in his blog Monday morning, comparing Giuliani to Bruce Willis in "The Sixth Sense": "Everyone except for him knows he's not alive." The Orlando Sentinel, in the Monday paper in which it endorsed John McCain, judged that Giuliani is "fighting it out for third" behind McCain and Mitt Romney.
But the candidate remained resolutely in denial. "We're going to win Florida tomorrow," he announced to the gathering in Sanford. Aboard Giuliani's plane, reporters regarded that boast with skepticism. "I believe we're going to win," Giuliani repeated to the death-watchers.
"Have you boxed yourself into a corner, though, by saying that the winner of Florida will win the Republican nomination?"
"We're going to win Florida," Giuliani said once more.
"You were leading for a long time and now . . . you're far behind," another inquisitor pointed out. "Did you see this coming?"
"We think we'll win," Giuliani repeated.
"One of the lessons in your book is 'underpromise and overdeliver,' " pointed out a cheeky questioner. "How does that lesson apply to this race?"
"Uh, we're going to deliver," he answered. "We're going to win Florida." Only then did he acknowledge that taking his stand in Florida "was the best choice given the realities that we had."
Those realities were daunting. The thrice-married Giuliani had started out at odds with the Republican conservative faithful on abortion, gay rights and guns. Indeed, the remarkable thing may well have been not his spectacular collapse but his ability to stay atop the GOP race for so long. For some time, it appeared Republicans might nominate a candidate who lived with gay men while engaged in a messy and public divorce from his second wife (who performed in "The Vagina Monologues") and also billed security expenses for his mistress to the city's loft board.
Or was it all just a dream?
Giuliani awoke to a different fantasy Monday morning -- in Orlando's Portofino Bay Hotel, a reproduction of an Italian seaside village. It was an ideal escape for a candidate who had said, six weeks earlier, that "I don't just pray for miracles, I don't just hope for miracles, I expect miracles."
But miracles were not in evidence at his stop outside Orlando. Even the Giuliani press-bus driver had trouble finding the rally. Once on the scene, a Dutch television crew beset a young man selling "Rudy 2008" clothing. "How's business?" one of them demanded. "I don't see anyone here."
"It's early," the salesman replied, with irritation.
Giuliani worked his way through his made-for-Florida stump speech: "I am the only candidate who has come out strongly in favor of a national catastrophe fund!" And: "If you want a one-page tax return, vote for Rudy Giuliani!" Even: "We've got to make sure we put a person on Mars!"
He closed with a plea to Floridians to reject the choices of voters in New Hampshire, Iowa and the other early-voting states that he skipped. "If we win here in Florida," he said, "it will be Florida that determines the president of the United States of America."
Giuliani worked the crowd, only to encounter State Department visitors from Gambia and Hungary.
Next stop: St. Petersburg, where a woman with a cowbell was trying to stir up the thin crowd. Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried for a rousing speech -- at least until this sound system, too, went down, with a thump.
The circuits recovered in time for Giuliani to take the stage and deliver his now-familiar appeal to Florida spirit: "Let's make Florida count." Three hours later, he raised the ante in Fort Myers. Of a Giuliani presidency, he said: "It's going to be almost like having a Floridian in the White House."
If that seemed fanciful, Giuliani had the benefit of having a professional actor in his entourage. "This is great!" Voight said, after taking the stage in St. Petersburg and finding a crowd that would fit in a living room. When an even smaller audience greeted Giuliani in Fort Myers, Voight pronounced: "This is like the Beatles or something."
But when they returned to the campaign plane between stops Monday, reporters found in each of their seats a baseball autographed by the candidate. For the death-watch crowd, it had the look of a parting gift.