Rudy Giuliani has either stalled or fallen some in the polls over the last month, and questions are being raised about his campaign’s “theory of the race” — which is, basically, that he can successfully wait to win a state until Florida’s primary on January 29 and use his victory there to rack up a huge number of delegates a week later when Republican voters in 21 states go to the polls to select a nominee.
Friend and foe alike ask whether Giuliani can really afford to lose the first three states of the primary season — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — especially when those states may all be won by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Why won’t these losses cause the bloom to fade from the Giuliani rose? Why won’t Republicans then transfer their affections to Romney? Why wouldn’t those Romney triumphs put the former governor in a position to win the crucial Florida primary on January 29, thereby effectively putting an end to the Giuliani candidacy?
These are all very good questions, and there is something notable about them. They suggest that the Republican primary is a two-man race.
Romney has a coherent plan for victory: He is fighting like mad to win early states in the hope that those victories will catapult him into the big primary as the leader. So he is leading in polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina but is trailing badly in national polls.
Giuliani has a coherent plan for victory: Use his persistent standing at the top of the national leader board and his deep popularity in Florida (land of ex-New Yorkers) to his advantage by allowing him to bypass the earlier, smaller, more eccentric states where he has less of a chance to prevail.
The other three contenders for the nomination seem to have no plan for victory. John McCain is refusing to go gentle into that good night, and his brave advocacy of the Petraeus surge has given him renewed standing among Republican primary voters — but he has no money and has just made too many enemies. Fred Thompson got into the race in September to test the notion that dissatisfaction with the choices on hand would cause a wave of support to flow his way. Interesting idea, but it didn’t work, and now the support that did flow to him is flowing away. Mike Huckabee, Baptist preacher turned politician, has taken Thompson’s place as the Southern conservative to watch, but while he is conservative on social issues, on economic and political matters he seems more in the populist traditions of the Democratic party, and he has no plausible path to the nomination.
That leaves Giuliani and Romney. So, knowing what we know today — Giuliani leading in the national polls but slipping and Romney leading in the early states, slipping in Iowa but gaining in New Hampshire and South Carolina — which candidate is in a better position?
I think Giuliani is, and I do not say this as an advocate. In all three states where Romney is leading, he is facing distinct challenges. Huckabee is gaining on him in Iowa. McCain has advanced in New Hampshire even as Giuliani has faded some. And he is in a statistical dead heat in South Carolina with Giuliani and Thompson.
Under these conditions, Romney might win in all three, but do so in a less than commanding fashion that allows the media to focus attention on those who come in second — Huckabee, McCain, and even Giuliani. After all, the only time a win isn’t a win is in primary politics. (Quick — which Democrat won New Hampshire in 1992? No, it wasn’t Bill Clinton, the self-declared “Comeback Kid.” It was Paul Tsongas.)
Meanwhile, Giuliani still leads by an average of 16 points in Florida. If he wins there, he erases every advantage Romney might have attained, including a delegate lead. And heads into the big primary as the name in the headlines.
All that said, with Romney feeling the heat from Huckabee in Iowa and forced therefore to concentrate on the state in December (the caucuses are on January 3), it is plausible that Giuliani will decide to shift gears a bit and make a far more substantial push in New Hampshire. Because if he wins there, or comes very close, the Romney theory of victory evaporates and then the only man left standing is Giuliani.
(All this theorizing, of course, comes to naught if somebody makes a huge blunder or is the subject of an unflattering revelation.)