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Giuliani finds snowbird friends in Florida

Reporter's Notebook: Rudolph W. Giuliani is finding snowbird friends in Florida, but is he winning over voters?
Image: Giuliani Continues Flordia Campaigning
Republican presidential hopeful and former New York City Mayor Rudoplh W. Giuliani holds his proposed tax form while speaking to supporters Wednesday at McCabe's Irish Pub & Grill in Naples, Fla.Daniel Barry / Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

America’s Mayor, Mr. Leadership himself, has just bathed in the applause of 400 mostly white-haired, mostly transplanted Northeasterners and he is about to spend four or five hours dialing for the dollars needed to keep his presidential campaign going.

Then he leans in to listen to a question from a television reporter: “Mayor, you’ve had the state to yourself here in Florida for so long, for weeks,” she says. “Why is it that you seem to be losing support, not gaining support?”

The eyes of Rudolph W. Giuliani pop wide. He tosses back his head and cackles in a manner not even vaguely suggestive of humor. What a crazy idea!

“I think the reality is that we are gaining support,” he said. “Our campaign is now in high gear.”

Before another question can be asked, Mr. Giuliani says thank you, waves, pivots, kisses a startled baby and walks out a side door.

Oh to be Hizzoner, the Republican candidate for president, in the sweaty adrenal days before the Florida primary that could decide his fate. Just last fall, Mr. Giuliani ruled the Republican field, guffawing with Brit Hume and Katie Couric, resting on his self-portrayal as Mr. 9/11 and the man who brought New York to heel.

Then federal prosecutors indicted his friend and business partner, the former New York police commissioner Bernard B. Kerik. And a report revealed that police officers had served as bodyguards for Mr. Giuliani’s girlfriend, Judith Nathan, who became his third wife shortly after he divorced his second wife.

Then Mr. Giuliani chose an unorthodox campaign strategy. He essentially skipped four early party caucuses and primaries. Iowa and South Carolina were seen as too loaded with Christian evangelicals, and New Hampshire was too friendly to Mitt Romney (or John McCain, as the case was). Nevada, too, seemed like Romney country.

So Mr. Giuliani repaired to Florida and declared it his sunshine fortress, counting on lost tribes of New York snowbirds to rally to his banner. He rolled into more towns here than an itinerant insurance salesman. He talked hurricanes, Everglades, military bases, disaster insurance, talked pretty much anything on the mind of a Floridian.

But his recent polling numbers in Florida have taken a precipitous dip, with one poll released Wednesday suggesting he had slipped to third place. And money has become a nagging worry, too; he took off much of Tuesday and Wednesday to dial donors.

The former mayor’s personal style makes few concessions to beach loafer casual. Here in Estero, on the Gulf Coast, he hops up to the stage looking a bit like a funeral director, in a black suit, a white shirt and a blue tie. He sports no hint of tan. His talking style is high-octane New York; he has a mocking sense of humor — he favors a high-pitched voice to mimic the voice of liberals — and very much enjoys using the first person singular. As in:

I am the only candidate to turn around an economy. I have dealt with disaster. I have tamed crime and welfare.

As for a proposal submitted by a few congressmen to cut and simplify taxes?

“A lot of it is based on my ideas,” Mr. Giuliani said. “I would say I kind of sparked it.”

His basic message has stayed consistent: He talks about “Islamic terror”; on Tuesday he suggested that Florida with its hurricanes and New York with its terrorist attacks are brothers in disaster. And — to big applause — he offers that immigrants desiring citizenship must write and speak English. Perhaps undercutting this message, the Giuliani campaign has run Spanish-language advertisements to court the Cuban-American vote.

A slog across Florida can sound like a stroll through Queens and Brooklyn. An elderly volunteer jerks her thumb at two friends. “Me? I’m Forest Hills,” she said. “She’s Ridgewood, and her at the end” — the woman waves — “she’s a Gravesend girl.”

Not every stop is adoring. Mr. Giuliani was an unyielding sort as mayor, and draws protesters as a cow does flies. In Palm Beach Gardens, he shakes hands with pastrami-chewing patrons at a deli. But when he steps outside, poster-waving Ron Paul fans yell that Mr. Giuliani is a fake, and abortion opponents come hopping over palm fronds, screaming that the reluctantly abortion-rights-supporting former mayor is the “anti-Christ.”

It’s a perfectly lunatic storm, and Mr. Giuliani’s toothy grin goes ear to ear. He seems most at ease when Florida has a New York moment.

Mr. Giuliani can make for an unpredictable campaigner. Last Sunday he had a fine rally going in Celebration, that “Truman Show” of a planned town in central Florida. He seemed to cut it off early — to catch the Giants playoff game.

The next day, his bus caravan made an unscheduled detour to the Daytona 500 Speedway.

Revving the white Rudy-’08-mobile to considerable speed, his driver took the former mayor and his staff members for a precarious spin around the steeply sloped speedway.

His communications director yelled at an adviser to sit on the far side to balance the weight, and the bus speakers blared Mr. Giuliani’s theme song, which sounds something like “Hail to the Chief” meets “Rocky.” Mr. Giuliani sat in the front, holding tight and grinning broadly.

Afterward, he strolled into the pit and asked red-suited drivers how to crawl into the doorless cars. For a brilliant minute he seemed intent on trying it. Alas, photo-op sense prevailed — there is little percentage in a front-page photo of a candidate’s trousered legs kicking as he is stuck head-first in the car.

Then he asked the drivers, not once but twice, if he could take a spin in a pace car.

No can do.

Mr. Giuliani shrugged.

“We’re all little boys,” he said. “You know that?”