Early momentum has been the surefire way to win modern presidential primaries: Emerge as the front-runner in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, then steamroll through later states to become the nominee.
Most of the Republican candidates are betting on this approach for 2008, but Rudy Giuliani is counting on something simpler: delegate math.
His plan is based on the fact that Florida and several other big states, trying to loosen the grip of the traditional early contests, are voting earlier than usual to compete for influence and attention from the candidates.
The shake-up might help Giuliani capture the nomination, even without the "must-win" early states.
"There's never been an election like this before, where you have so many delegate-rich states coming on the heels of the early primary states, like California, like Illinois," says Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime, in an interview with The Associated Press. "It is clearly a huge amount of delegates that are available Feb. 5 in states where the mayor is leading."
Giuliani dominates in national polls— he leads former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson 29 percent to 19 percent in Associated Press-Ipsos polling released last week. He has big leads, too, in California, New York and Florida.
He trails in polling in Iowa and New Hampshire — although he's gained ground in New Hampshire — and Thompson has been challenging his lead in South Carolina surveys. That's in part because conservatives who hold sway over those GOP primaries are uncomfortable with Giuliani's more liberal record on cultural issues like abortion and gay rights.
Which states matter most, earlier ones or later, bigger ones?
In Orlando, Fla., retired Army Col. Terry Fiest says he doesn't take marching orders from the early states.
"I think Iowa is a myth," Fiest says. "Iowa is like the starting gate of a marathon. I don't even gauge Iowa."
His friend Craig Hartwig, who lives in Mount Doro, Fla., adds: "We're not bandwagon people."
This sentiment led Florida to move its primary from March to Jan. 29, four weeks after Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Leapfrogging states drew punishment last week, with party officials slashing their convention delegates by half, for violating rules against holding primaries before Feb. 5. The penalties apply to New Hampshire, Florida, South Carolina, Michigan and Wyoming. Iowa will not be penalized because its Jan. 3 caucuses technically are nonbinding, and the same is true of Nevada on Jan. 19.
To win the GOP nomination, a candidate must amass a majority of the 2,380 national convention delegates, most of whom are pledged to support the winner of their states or districts.
After nearly half the states hold nominating contests on Feb. 5, Giuliani, the former New York mayor, could hold a commanding lead in the delegate count.
—Giuliani has wide leads in bigger states with more delegates, such as Florida (57 delegates), California (173), New York (101), New Jersey (52) and Illinois (70). He's expected to capture Connecticut (30) and Delaware (18), too. He campaigned Monday in Missouri (58), another big prize whose senior senator, four-term Republican Kit Bond, recently endorsed Giuliani.
—Even where he doesn't win on Feb. 5, Giuliani could still come in second and win delegates. Big states in this category might include Georgia (72), Alabama (48) or Tennessee (55). Only a few — New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Missouri among them — award delegates on a winner-take-all basis. Other winner-take-all states, Arizona (53) and Utah (36), are expected to go for John McCain and Mitt Romney, respectively.
—States voting after Feb. 5, including Maryland (37), Ohio (88) and Pennsylvania (74), also hold potential for Giuliani to roll up most or some of the delegates.
Giuliani has a good shot at winning an early state or two as well. He has gained ground on former Massachusetts Gov. Romney in New Hampshire (12 delegates), where Giuliani ranks second in polls, and has battled Thompson for the lead in South Carolina (24).
He is spending more time in New Hampshire and in recent weeks has been mailing fliers to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. He's also run radio ads there.
But Giuliani's rivals say that if he fails to capture an early state his math won't add up. They argue a candidate just can't count on winning the later states without factoring in the winner of the early contests.
Whoever wins Iowa—and Romney has a double-digit lead there — will be viewed as the leader going into the next few contests, officials in other campaigns insist.
"People want to vote for a winner," says Carl Forti, political director of Romney's campaign. "And the winner is determined by who is on the front page of the papers and who is perceived as the front-runner after those early primaries."
History backs up this claim: Democrats John Kerry, Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis all came from behind to win Iowa, then gathered steam to eventually win their party's nomination; Republican George W. Bush, after winning Iowa but losing New Hampshire to Arizona Sen. McCain, managed to win South Carolina and become the 2000 nominee.
"Win the early states, and you get momentum and money," says Rich Bond, a former Republican National Committee chairman. "The question is, is that momentum and money a big enough wave to capsize Giuliani, who may not have won any of those early states?"
McCain's advisers suggest the earlier primaries could make the first states more influential, not less. Florida is so expensive to run television advertisements in that media coverage of the early leader will have a big impact, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis says.
"If you don't have momentum going into Feb. 5, forget about it. And I think that's equally true in Florida," Davis says.
Al Cardenas, a former Florida Republican Party chairman who is supporting Romney, agrees: "The winner of the early primaries will carry an enormous slingshot effect into later races," he says.
Using either strategy —momentum or simple math — Giuliani's campaign wagers it can win.