WASHINGTON — Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani hasn't been able to gain traction in New Hampshire, despite spending fairly heavily there. So the fact that he's redirecting attention to others states is not that surprising. Still, it's not clear exactly why he's not resonating there. Isn't this moderate, bluish state exactly the kind of place that should be receptive to Giuliani's electability message? If he can't make it there, where can he?
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Earlier this year, independent voters looked out of reach for Republicans in New Hampshire. In the wake of the 2006 drubbing by the Democrats, Republicans in the state were essentially driven underground. A February University of New Hampshire/WMUR survey [PDF] showed that just 32 percent of independents said they were planning to vote in the Republican primary, compared with 68 percent who said they'd pick up the Democratic ballot. But in the latest UNH poll taken in early December [PDF], almost half (46 percent) said they were planning on voting in the Republican primary. Arizona Sen. John McCain and Giuliani were tied among this group of voters, narrowly trailing the front-running Mitt Romney. So why can't Giuliani make the sale with these voters?
Giuliani's policy positions shouldn't be as troublesome for him in New Hampshire, which is more secular and socially moderate than Iowa and South Carolina. But it's personal issues, not policies, that are dragging him down. When pollsters asked New Hampshire Republicans in the December survey which candidate was the most believable or the "most likely to keep the same positions on important issues," Giuliani trailed both Romney and McCain. On the question of which candidate respondents saw as "least likely to act like a typical politician," Giuliani came in last, at just 9 percent (Romney and McCain were tied at 18 percent). Voters may agree with what Giuliani has to say, but they just don't know if they can trust what he's saying.
That makes it difficult not only for Giuliani to sell himself, but also to criticize other candidates. Consequently, it was McCain, not Giuliani, who was the first to send direct mail to New Hampshire voters attacking Romney as a flip-flopper.
This credibility gap is also showing up in national polling. The most recent Diageo/Hotline poll shows Giuliani with the highest negatives among GOP primary voters of any top Republican contender, at 32 percent. It seems that the baggage Giuliani has been carrying (which many pundits suggested would sink him), is finally starting to take its toll. The longer that Giuliani has remained on top in national polling, the more he has exposed himself to criticism.
So what does this mean for a New Hampshire McComeback? Those most likely to get a bump out of a strong Iowa showing -- former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson -- just aren't selling in New Hampshire. Still, the quick turnaround from Iowa to New Hampshire means that McCain won't get to spend as much time in the media spotlight as Huckabee has (and will continue to until at least Jan. 3).
Huckabee's time as an Iowa story has paid off. Not only does the Diageo/Hotline poll put him in second place behind Giuliani (17 percent to 21 percent), but he's also seen his favorability rating grow. The front-loaded calendar helps protect Huckabee from enduring weeks of attacks. McCain, meanwhile, could hope to translate a win in New Hampshire to success in another one of his favorite 2000 haunts, Michigan, which holds its primary just a week later.
But if Romney and Giuliani fade as front-runners, can the underfunded and thinly staffed Huckabee or McCain campaigns take advantage of it? They say money follows the candidate with the momentum, but will it be obvious by Jan. 8 where the momentum is going? If not, do folks continue to sit on their wallets? If that's the case, Romney could still find a way to stage a comeback.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.