Video: 'America's mayor' now running for president

By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 9/12/2007 5:38:35 PM ET 2007-09-12T21:38:35

So who is the stronger frontrunner for their respective party’s nomination, Hillary Clintonor Rudy Giuliani?  My answer might surprise you. Considering where things are right now in both primary fights, factoring in money, the calendar and certain intangibles, a strong case can be made that Giuliani’s tenuous grip on the frontrunner tag is as strong, if not stronger than Clinton’s.

This may seem nuts to think considering the slew of polls showing Clinton leading and her standing in the early states improving, but remember this campaign is about more than poll standing right now. And don’t get too caught up in the Giuliani poll standing right now since we are in the midst of a Fred Thompsonbump. Talk to me in a month if this Thompson tightening continues, but until then, tread carefully.

Most new candidates get a good 1 or 2 week run and Thompson is experiencing that right now. In fact, it’s the second time Thompson has gotten a poll bump. The first one was in May-June and that lasted about a month, with Thompson sliding slightly and Giuliani floating back up above the 30s in national polls.

Can Giuliani survive this second Thompson bump? My gut says yes. After all, Giuliani has passed every other test so far.

For months, I’ve been a part of the Washington chattering class that’s been waiting for the supposedly inevitable Giuliani collapse. Consider some of the conventional wisdom many of us have espoused:

I’m sure I’ve left something out of the above graph, but the fact is none of this has come to pass yet. And with barely more than 100 days until the Iowa Caucuses (I’m assuming a caucus date of Jan. 3 or Jan. 5), it’s getting late in the game for Giuliani’s opponents to start hoping (or willing) for one of these baggage issues to bring Rudy down.

One wonders if Giuliani’s opponents believed the chattering class’s collective conventional wisdom as strongly as the conventional wisdom folks themselves. For those assuming the media would take Giuliani down, they were sadly mistaken. The media doesn’t go after candidates without the help of other campaigns. 

But forget Giuliani’s poll standing or perception standing with pundits, the biggest change in this campaign in the last month has been the primary calendar and that’s where one can definitively see an advantage for Giuliani over Clinton in their respective paths to the nomination.

Giuliani’s delegate path is much less tricky than Clinton’s. Thanks to the decision by all the Democrats to abide by the four-state pledge of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, virtually ignoring two bigger states, Florida and Michigan, Clinton has a ton of pitfalls.

Sure, she can put her race away in one fell swoop with a victory in Iowa, but so can Giuliani. But it’s not about whether Clinton can benefit from a victory; the question is which of the two frontrunners is better positioned to survive a loss in the early stages.

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And unquestionably, Giuliani is much better position to survive early losses than Clinton, which is the most important way to look at this primary calendar right now.

As someone who has seen “Wedding Crashers” way too much, I probably can quote more lines from that movie than a normal human being should. But the one line that I can hearing in my head regarding Clinton and Iowa is during the touch football scene when Mr. Self-sustaining scallop farm boy taunts Vince Vaughn’s character with “Big Tree Fall Hard.”

A Clinton loss in Iowa, particularly if she’s behind BOTH Barack Obama and John Edwardscould be just that, “a big tree” falling hard and, more importantly, harder to resurrect.

Giuliani doesn’t have the same potholes in his road. Sure, he’s going to have a hard time winning Iowa or New Hampshire, but Giuliani has a built-in safety nets in Florida and Michigan, two big states where Giuliani seems to have the opportunity to consolidate more marginal Republican primary voters (the current strength of his support).

Part of Giuliani’s strength is the fundamental weakness of his opponents. Compare Mitt Romneyand Thompson to Obama and Edwards; both Democrats are much more formidable nationally, at least in polling, than either Romney or Thompson. That perception is particularly important to Republicans; more important, frankly, than I think polls are showing. Republican primary voters are conditioned to believe in their principles over electability but that doesn’t mean they won’t compromise in what they think is principled and Giuliani’s views on terrorism could be enough. If neither Romney nor Thompson look like a winner, I have a hard time believing their support will hold, let alone grow.

Meanwhile, both of Clinton’s chief challengers have a perception to be a national candidate, Edwards due his standing as the VP nominee and Obama simply due to his celebrity and money.

As a political analyst who hopes to be in this business for years, if not decades, it’s going to be fascinating to watch a Giuliani nomination (if it happens) play out as far as the future of the Republican Party is concerned.

Many have believed the Democratic Party is on verge of doing something historical and as far as race and gender are concerned, it’s very likely the party will make history. But no matter whom the Democrats nominate, they won’t have the same ideologically-changing effect on the Democrats that a Giuliani nomination will on the GOP. Should Giuliani win the general, it could transform GOP in ways ideologically that reshapes the stereotype among the media of the type of candidate who can win a Republican nomination. If Giuliani loses the general, the conservative wing of the GOP will argue that the loss was due, in part, to the lack of ideological purity on Rudy’s part. And that could divide the Republicans for a few more elections causing them lots of problems.

But I’m not getting ahead of myself. Bottom line: Don’t underestimate Giuliani’s frontrunner status. He’s positioned himself in Iowa where 2nd (or even a strong third) will look like a positive. Clinton is not in that same situation. And once the fallout from Iowa is felt nationally, it’s a whole new ballgame.

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