By Michael Leahy and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
In presidential politics, a candidate's irrelevance immediately precedes his annihilation.
Rudolph W. Giuliani's creeping irrelevance in the Republican race for the White House began to be felt, fatally, 10 days before the Florida primary. Few in his tepid crowds seemed even to know that, by then, the man once regarded as the front-runner for the party's nomination had already been campaigning in the state for seven weeks.
"Mayor, how do you like being back campaigning in Florida?" he was asked welcomingly after a Saturday afternoon speech in a central-state retirement community called the Villages. Giuliani winced. "I'm not back in Florida," he said, laughing wanly. "I've been here for quite some time."
Giuliani had been mostly forgotten. It was a consequence less of any loss than of his campaign's decision to settle in Florida to await a high-profile fight with his chief foes. But irrelevance felled him before the foes ever arrived. The strategy was always a do-or-die gamble, complicated by a sobering reality: No one has ever captured a presidential nomination after going winless in a race's first six primaries and caucuses, as Giuliani has done.
Last night, the campaign's bet turned into a bust. The former New York mayor's distant finish left his candidacy in free fall, his prospects dimmer than ever in the upcoming 21-state GOP contests next Tuesday. He is expected to drop out of the race and endorse John McCain, perhaps as early as today.
The Florida strategy was born of desperation, the result of a growing realization that the candidate atop every national poll last winter was not winning over voters in the states he needed to catapult his campaign. According to numerous sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they have close relationships with the campaign, the effort began bogging down early, as strategists struggled to find a state where Giuliani could win.
In September, top Giuliani strategists met in a boardroom at the Marriott Marquis, in New York's Times Square, to discuss the deteriorating situation in Iowa, where the first votes would be counted four months later. Campaign manager Mike DuHaime was there, along with senior adviser Tony Carbonetti, communication director Katie Levinson, strategy director Brent Seaborn and Giuliani pollster Ed Goeas. They discussed how they had run radio ads and begun an aggressive mail campaign, touting Giuliani's New York accomplishments. Nothing was working.
Florida, they decided, with a more moderate electorate, an abundance of retired New Yorkers and other Easterners, seemed like the solution -- the big win that would propel the campaign into Super Tuesday a week later. But they worried about former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. If he won Iowa, New Hampshire and then Michigan, he might be unstoppable. So they refined their strategy: Take on Romney in New Hampshire, and make their move in Florida.
But somehow the focus just wasn't there. Giuliani kept traveling the country rather than staying put in New Hampshire, as McCain was doing. "We said we needed the candidate more," an organizer recalls informing Giuliani's national campaign organization in New York, only to be told, he said, that fundraising and strategic considerations dictated different priorities. "There are always competing interests for the candidate's time and [for] money," DuHaime said. "There is never enough time for both. We followed the path that we thought was best."
But by December, when the high command gathered again at the Marriott Marquis, it was obvious that they weren't going to win New Hampshire, either. They were going to have to bet everything on Florida.
The original idea had been a "national strategy" to prove that Giuliani was the most electable in the Republican field because he could compete in places that candidates from his party had traditionally abandoned, such as New York. But the high poll numbers that he received from the time he announced his candidacy early last year didn't reflect the antipathy he would encounter from conservatives, especially in Iowa, and his staff didn't seem to understand it.
Pat Robertson's endorsement of Giuliani had done nothing to assuage the antipathy of social conservatives for the New Yorker's positions on abortion rights and gay rights. In the southwest town of Creston, Iowa, state Sen. Jeff Angelo, an evangelical Christian who was a Giuliani supporter despite their differences on key social issues, had been shocked along with other Giuliani volunteers by the intensity of the opposition to his candidate.
"We were actually in second place in some polls, behind Romney, in the early summer," Angelo said. "And we had Robertson, which I thought would have a big value. But everybody rebuffed Robertson. It was like they said, 'We have to stop this, stop him.' "
A congressional supporter of Giuliani remembers hearing from amazed Giuliani volunteers about people asking them at Iowa rallies how it felt to be aiding "baby killers." But a stunned Angelo hadn't given up, hoping that evangelicals -- who constituted about 60 percent of the caucus electorate -- might still be swayed by an account of Giuliani's fiscal conservatism and mayoral performance, especially if they could meet him. He lobbied the national campaign to allocate more time for Giuliani to show up at events, shake hands and make small talk.
New York was slow to react, and sometimes blundered when it did. An event at a farm in the eastern Iowa town of Olin was abruptly canceled when the national campaign learned that the owners, Jerry and Deborah Von Sprecken, had only a roughly 80-acre spread and were not wealthy enough to be affected by an issue Giuliani had hoped to push: the elimination of the inheritance tax. The campaign's new problem was that about half of Olin's 600 residents were planning to attend the event, scheduled for the next day. The cancellation was an embarrassment for the Von Spreckens and a public relations headache for the campaign, the subject of local newspaper articles.
Without fanfare, Giuliani called the Von Spreckens, apologized, then changed his schedule to fly to Iowa from the South, apologize in person to the couple at their home, and spend the next 2 1/2 hours chatting with them.
But Giuliani forged a connection with few Iowans, and, by the September meeting at the Marriott, it was clear that the state was lost. Goeas pulled out his sheaf of Iowa poll numbers. They were devastating, reflecting in part what the campaign termed "pro-life deal-breakers" for whom a pro-choice candidate such as Giuliani was unacceptable. The Giuliani team concluded that the campaign could spend $3 million to $4 million in Iowa and still not finish any higher than fourth. Without dissent, the strategists decided to stop making any real effort, or significant expenditures, in Iowa.Nearly Absent in New Hampshire
New Hampshire was supposed to be different. All along, supporters in the state believed that Giuliani had a chance to do well there. Surveys by various state pollsters unaffiliated with any campaign indicated that the very social positions that had made Giuliani anathema to blocs of Republicans in other parts of the country made him ideological kin both to segments of New Hampshire Republicans with a libertarian bent and to moderate independents who could vote in the state's open GOP primary.
"Giuliani could've walked through New Hampshire had he campaigned hard here," says pollster Andy Smith of the University of New Hampshire. "He had better name recognition here at the beginning than his opponents. He had a tough position on taxes. He was what New Hampshire Republicans like. But he wasn't coming here enough. People started talking about it."
Boosters, including state Chairman Wayne Semprini, spent much of last year urging the national campaign staff to have Giuliani spend more time in New Hampshire. "We couldn't get Rudy for a lot of prime-time evening things and breakfasts because the New York people were telling us he had to fundraise for what they called a 'national' campaign," the volunteer recalls. "He'd do a fundraising breakfast out of state, come in here for an event, then fly out and do a dinner fundraiser somewhere."
Giuliani was sometimes going as long as about a month between visits.
A high-ranking official on the candidate's national staff doesn't dispute the emphasis on a national strategy or the heavy time allocated to fundraising. "I understand the grievances coming from people on the ground in New Hampshire, but we thought we had to do what he did," the official said. "They'll probably be some Monday morning quarterback now. But we couldn't self-finance a campaign like Romney could. And we weren't going to do the other extreme and just camp out in New Hampshire like John McCain did. . . . McCain did it that way because he didn't have a choice."
As late as September, it looked as though Giuliani could take New Hampshire votes from the badly wounded McCain, who had yet to recover from his summertime staff implosion and financial woes. Maybe with some hard work, the team thought, Giuliani could seize the No. 2 spot in the state and then challenge Romney by the time winter rolled around.
But McCain was reviving himself. His steadfast support of the U.S. troop increase in Iraq was proving to be a political boost. By late November, the media were reporting that the increase had lessened violence in parts of Iraq, making McCain look prescient. He was slowly becoming the predominant voice on national security, stripping Giuliani of one of his major campaign calling cards.
McCain began to climb while Romney continued to lead the New Hampshire field. And that started to have consequences for Florida, as well.
According to sources close to the Giuliani campaign who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Giuliani left two private meetings last year with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, believing he had secured his backing. But in October, a feisty McCain met with Crist and told him he was going to win in New Hampshire.
"I know you're getting a lot of pressure from Rudy's people," McCain told Crist, according to a McCain aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works with many Republicans. "But please don't endorse anybody before New Hampshire."
"His heart was always with McCain," said the aide, who recalls how McCain, alone among all the GOP contenders, had endorsed Crist in a tough gubernatorial primary battle just two years earlier. "He didn't want to put a bullet in McCain's head by endorsing Giuliani. . . . Plus, he didn't like the Giuliani campaign strategy. Not many people were liking what they were hearing out of New Hampshire and Iowa about Giuliani."
Crist's decision not to endorse him had ramifications stretching far beyond Florida. A critical part of Giuliani's national strategy depended on signaling early to possible contributors and voters that, after his rivals had beaten up one another in the early primary states, he would be a heavy favorite in Florida, having locked up key support from Crist and others in the state's GOP establishment.
Believing that Crist and his aides had committed to an endorsement, Giuliani aides had already set aside Nov. 18 for the governor to announce his support and then accompany them on the campaign trail. It was to have been a major week in several parts of the country for the campaign, which would release its first television advertisement in New Hampshire on Nov. 15, as part of a last push in the Granite State to see whether Giuliani, who had lost ground in state polls, could rebound there.
The ad, dubbed "Tested," chronicled New York's turnaround during the Giuliani mayoral years. It was a huge hit, and staffers were optimistic about its power to move voters.
Crist, the ad and an anticipated wave of momentum: The combination looked auspicious to the Giuliani team.
But, in early November, the staff received the news of Crist's decision to stay neutral for the time being. Giuliani felt betrayed, having been convinced in private meetings with Crist that an endorsement was in the works and that all that was left to do was to work out some details.
Crist was just one of several major setbacks for the campaign in November. Early in the month, Giuliani's former police chief, Bernard Kerik, was indicted on charges of federal tax fraud and conspiracy, triggering more questions about Giuliani's knowledge of his former friend's business dealings. On Nov. 28, the Politico Web site reported on questionable accounting practices during Giuliani's mayoral term in which security costs for Judith Nathan -- then his mistress -- were billed to obscure city agencies.
The article reignited a simmering narrative about the mayor's professional ethics and his personal life -- issues that had been dampened until then. Within days of the Politico report, campaign advisers saw Giuliani's poll numbers, which had risen for a few days after the airing of the "Tested" ad, drop alarmingly.
The campaign turned pessimistic about New Hampshire, and by mid-December, it was running its last television ads in the state. The decision struck some state volunteers as simply more evidence of the national campaign's erratic mode of operation.
At a meeting with the national team, Semprini delivered an optimistic forecast of Giuliani's chance to the campaign's county and town chairmen. Then a senior strategist addressed the group. "We expected a rousing pep talk, like, 'We're going to win here or do very well, and then we're on our way,' that sort of thing," the volunteer said.
Instead, the strategist told the volunteers that Giuliani would be fine with or without a win in New Hampshire.
Semprini angrily told the strategist that his statement had terribly deflated the group. "Don't even come back here unless it's with an inspiring message," Semprini told him and other national staffers. "Don't come here again and say that we're not needed."Heading South in Florida
One adviser labeled the time from then to mid-January as the "period of darkness," when fundraising conference calls became dispiritingly quiet. Donors who used to ask a lot of strategic questions were oddly silent. When they did finally speak, it was usually to voice doubt. "You could sense . . . there was concern," the adviser said. "There was a lot of angst . . . over [Giuliani's] marginalization."
As if things couldn't get worse, this piece of news had surfaced at the Marriott meeting in December: The campaign had far less money than the advisers had imagined. The original budget for New Hampshire and Florida had been $15 million. But now the strategists were told that it had shrunk to $7.5 million. They were dumbstruck.
But they were boxed in by then, running out of options, the money running down. The campaign had to be revived in Florida, and only the candidate, relying on the force of his personality and famous toughness, could rescue himself.
Giuliani headed to Florida after an unexplained illness had forced him to turn around his plane for an emergency landing and to spend a night in a St. Louis hospital.
By the time he finally began his push in Florida, the media had completely turned their attention to Iowa before the first caucus there. DuHaime and other aides believed they could grab headlines with aggressive policy stances from Giuliani, coupled with tough television ads laced with barbs about his opposition.
One ad, which was ready to air, highlighted McCain's comments that he preferred the Federal Emergency Management Agency to a national insurance fund, an issue that perhaps offered an opening for Giuliani, who was pushing for a special catastrophic insurance fund. The ad, featuring a foreboding shot of FEMA trailers, had a chance to resonate in a state where natural disasters have prompted calls for broadened insurance coverage. Another ad showed a series of testimonials for Giuliani, ending with two elderly women saying: "He won't raise taxes like that other guy -- or flip-flop like you-know-who."
But the ads never ran.
Instead, the commercials and others like them were e-mailed to the campaign bus, where DuHaime and others pressed Giuliani to use them. He refused, saying in some cases that he wasn't comfortable with them.
On the stump in Florida, Giuliani never said anything that forced the spotlight back his way. On Dec. 16, he delivered a much-hyped speech billed as a relaunch of his campaign message. It said nothing new and received little attention. "It was a constant battle to dial him up," one aide said of the lack of energy or the old winning combativeness in his appearances. "Every day: a constant battle."
In the campaign's desperate last push, it was spending about $1 million a week on television ads. But Giuliani's poll numbers stagnated -- and then began to slide. Crist made a highly publicized endorsement -- of McCain. By the final days, Giuliani was seldom even mentioning his opponents by name, his speeches having been ratcheted down to valedictory messages. He genially talked about his plans for tax cuts and his support of the catastrophic insurance fund. Sometimes he spoke to half-filled rooms, in an indication of an outcome that looked inevitable by then even to his own staff.
On primary day, during the morning TV news shows, he resisted questions about the possibility of his withdrawal. But he did open slightly when asked why he thought he was trailing so badly.
"The emphasis on early primaries . . . has created a certain momentum," he said of his fate, and smiled with the understanding of a politician who had seen a truth. Campaigns must fight early, or else fade from the electorate's consciousness.