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Whither Rudy?

NBC's Chuck Todd delves in Giuliani's problem with early state campaigning.
Giuliani 2008
Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani watches his step in the snow after posing for a photo outside the Christmas Dove on a campaign stop in Barrington, N.H. Monday, Dec. 17, 2007. Elise Amendola / AP
/ Source: NBC News

These should be great days for Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign.

With long shot Mike Huckabee supplanting Mitt Romney as the frontrunner in Iowa, the early state fight among the Republicans is a jumbled mess. And that's the exact same scenario that the Giuliani campaign has been counting on for its big state delegate strategy to work.

And yet, there's something amiss right now with Giuliani's effort.

Perhaps it was fitting that during the last Republican debate, Giuliani's podium was off to the side, almost out of the picture. Save from a few negative stories in the New York tabs and the tough "Meet the Press" interview earlier this month, Giuliani has seemed to shrink away from the current campaign narrative.

His camp tried to insert Giuliani back into the mix with speech last weekend in Florida. The speech read well, though how the campaign chose to showcase it was just plain odd.

First, Giuliani read from prepared text, not a teleprompter. Second, the campaign chose a location far away from where most of the national political press corps was residing. Third, he did it on a Saturday, a day when folks just aren’t too tuned into news.

I get the idea of the speech and the symbolism surrounding Florida. But why not speak on a Monday, and drive the news chatter for the rest of the week? Or why not do it on a Thursday and get people talking over the weekend? Saturday news events can get lost, and this one, in particular, was about trying to get the press to refocus its Giuliani narrative (which was getting lost) and they did it on the hardest day to make news.

But let's forget the critique of how the speech played, and let’s delve into why the Giuliani folks felt they need to do it.

Between the religious fireworks started by Huckabee and Romney and the Clinton campaign's panic attacks, Giuliani is barely registering on the press corps' radar.

He hasn’t made either Iowa or New Hampshire a priority, though he hasn’t totally ruled out campaigning in either state either.

So the question is, did Giuliani's camp miscalculate this decision to "kinda, sorta" campaign in the early states? One can sense the conflict in how the campaign goes about putting together its Iowa and New Hampshire itineraries.

On the one hand, they sense an opportunity to pull a Dukakis in Iowa and finish a surprising third, which then boomerangs him into New Hampshire.

But the campaign also is worried about handing another candidate, Romney in particular, a chance to claim victory over Giuliani in one of the early states.

In essence, the Giuliani campaign has waffled on competing in the early states and that waffling has come back to haunt their candidate.

In hindsight, Giuliani should have either made a full bore effort in every state or skipped the first two states altogether.

Of course, part of Giuliani's pitch has been that he's the most electable Republican and "electable" candidates can't skip participating in swing states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

This may be why Team Rudy decided they couldn't totally call in sick. So then, why not seriously contest both states?

I've always had a theory that Clinton and Giuliani could have collectively decided to skip Iowa and the New York-based national press corps would have gone along. During the first six months of this campaign season, one could get the sense that The New York Times was relishing the idea of Clinton and Giuliani de-emphasizing the importance of Iowa.

Considering how both are struggling to keep their national frontrunner statures in tact, it's an idea I bet both camps wished they would have conceived. Neither New Yorker is suited for an Iowa electorate and both could have used the Feb. 5 developments as a reason to pursue a national strategy.

The downside to this strategy, of course, is that it would have made them look like bubbled-in New Yorkers out-of-touch with fly-over America.

Which brings me back to Giuliani’s conundrum. The campaign has clearly decided it has to go all-in on this Florida and Feb. 5 strategy, but doesn’t want to be out of the storyline from Dec. 26 to Jan. 9, when the national press corps is embedded in Iowa and New Hampshire.

How hard will he campaign in those two states? Will he do lots of events in a single day, risking crowd-size comparisons to Huckabee, Romney and McCain (or even Thompson) which will be bigger? Where’s Giuliani on caucus night? Is he in Iowa or New Hampshire? Or is he in Missouri, sending a Feb. 5 campaign message?

Giuliani seems to be a candidate without a home right now. Florida’s Jan. 29 primary can’t come soon enough. But there's good news for Giuliani, with Iowa and New Hampshire being so chaotic currently; exactly the scenario he needs to coalesce the large states.

Al Gore tried this strategy in ’88, and while he became a player in the campaign late in the cycle, he couldn’t close the deal. Giuliani’s trying something that’s never been done before. But we have a calendar that we’ve never had before so the idea of something out of the ordinary happening is entirely possible.

Giuliani's campaign problems go beyond state strategy. When he's out there, our NBC/NJ reporter Matthew Berger tells me he doesn't hold nearly the number of events as his competitors, focusing instead on fundraising.

Raising this much money, this close to the primaries means one of two things: He's trying to shock everyone with the amount he has in the bank to regain front-runner status (particularly since he wants this money to prove he can play nationally), or he's worried that his fourth quarter totals will look no better than the rest of the field, making him look like just another candidate who happened to not do well in the early states.

Still, Giuliani needs to figure out how to be relevant in the news cycle between now and Jan. 9. Because his lead is slipping in the national polls and because Iraq and terrorism have been trumped by immigration, the economy and character as issues, the Giuliani camp is having a hard time selling the press on the idea that Iowa and New Hampshire are about winnowing the GOP field between Giuliani and an anti-Giuliani candidate.

It’s not that clear-cut and unless the Giuliani folks can work some magic between now and then, they need to hope Rudy catches fire in New Hampshire, pulls a surprise third place showing in Iowa, chaos reigns supreme in both states, or Hillary Clinton takes off.

Don't forget, there’s been no greater campaign asset for Giuliani than the threat of Hillary Clinton as president.