One of the few sure bets you can place in the 2008 presidential contest is that the campaign of one-time frontrunner Rudy Giuliani will take a lethal hit in Florida tomorrow. He’s running a weak third (or even fourth) in every recent poll, as John McCain and Mitt Romney battle for a key win. And as Byron York reminds us in a dispatch from Rudy’s less-than-vibrant Florida operation, this state was supposed to be not just a “firewall” for Giuliani, but the beginning of a long sweep of delegate-rich states:
The RealClearPolitics average of polls counted 41 surveys taken in Florida between February 25, 2007 and December 2, 2007. Giuliani led in every one of them, by margins as high as 23 points. And not just a long time ago — in one CNN survey taken in the last week of November, Giuliani led by 21 points.
The fascinating thing about Giluliani’s collapse is that it is primarily attributable to a strategic error, the decision to avoid contests in early states. It’s not as though another candidate caught fire and displaced Rudy; McCain’s return from the dead was largely a result of a vacuum created in no small part by Giuliani’s occlusion, and the candidate who really did come out of nowhere, Mike Huckabee, took votes from Rudy’s rivals. And while Rudy did take some hits late last year over his tangled love life and its possible impact on NY taxpayers, much of that was old news, and it accompanied the fall in the polls more than it caused it. He’s done pretty well in the debates, and in fundraising. But it hasn’t mattered much.
You just can’t avoid the conclusion that the Giuliani campaign gambled and lost on the proposition that it’s possible to maintain a viable national nominating campaign without the oxygen derived from success in early states. The decision to concede IA (and later, MI) quickly drove Giuliani from the front-runner position in NH. The dive Rudy took in NH immediately eliminated his previously strong standing in SC. And now, the cumulative effect of all those retreats has driven him to also-run status in his very best state, FL (he even trails in the polls in NY!).
This is precisely what a lot of people predicted when Giuliani first began leaking his “February 5 strategy” many months ago. Like Al Gore’s campaign in 1988, Rudy and his consultants thought they could repeal history, diss the IA-NH duopoly, and roll to victory as everyone applauded their brilliant audacity. Instead, Guliani is about to become one of those rare presidential candidates who loses almost entirely because of unforced errors. We’ll never know how he might have done with a different strategy. But we do know this one was just plain wrong.