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For Giuliani, a dizzying free-fall

As Rudolph W. Giuliani ponders his political mortality, many advisers and political observers point to the hubris and strategic miscalculations that plagued his campaign.
Image: Rudy Giuliani Attends Florida Primary Night Event In Orlando
Supporters gather to hear Republican presidential hopeful Rudolph W. Giuliani speak during a post-primary campaign rally Tuesday at the Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando, Fla.Joe Raedle / Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

Perhaps he was living an illusion all along.

Rudolph W. Giuliani’s campaign for the Republican nomination for president took impressive wing last year, as the former mayor wove the pain experienced by his city on Sept. 11, 2001, and his leadership that followed into national celebrity. Like a best-selling author, he basked in praise for his narrative and issued ominous and often-repeated warnings about the terror strike next time.

Voters seemed to embrace a man so comfortable wielding power, and his poll numbers edged higher to where he held a broad lead over his opponents last summer. Just three months ago, Anthony V. Carbonetti, Mr. Giuliani’s affable senior policy adviser, surveyed that field and told The New York Observer: “I don’t believe this can be taken from us. Now that I have that locked up, I can go do battle elsewhere.”

In fact, Mr. Giuliani’s campaign was about to begin a free-fall so precipitous as to be breathtaking. Mr. Giuliani finished third in the Florida primary on Tuesday night; only a few months earlier, he had talked about the state as his leaping-off point to winning the nomination.

As Mr. Giuliani ponders his political mortality, many advisers and political observers point to the hubris and strategic miscalculations that plagued his campaign. He allowed a tight coterie of New York aides, none with national political experience, to run much of his campaign.

He accumulated a fat war chest — he had $16.6 million on hand at the end of September, more than Mitt Romney ($9.5 million) or Senator John McCain ($3.2 million) — but spent vast sums on direct mail instead of building strong organizations on the ground in South Carolina and New Hampshire.

Strategic mistakes
Indeed, his fourth-place finish in New Hampshire, a state where he was once considered competitive, provided an early indication of his vulnerability.

And, curiously, this man with the pugnacious past declined to toss more than light punches at his Republican opponents.

Mr. Giuliani spoke on Tuesday of his own strategic mistakes, suggesting that his opponents had built up too much momentum in earlier primaries. But this is a rhetorical sleight of hand; he in fact competed hard in New Hampshire, to remarkably poor effect.

Perhaps a simpler dynamic was at work: The more that Republican voters saw of Mr. Giuliani, the less they wanted to vote for him.

He was a temple-throbbing Italian-American New Yorker who ruled a cacophonous city seen as the very definition of liberalism. He was somewhat liberal on social issues — notably immigration and abortion — where Republican candidates are invariably conservative. And he possessed a complicated family life: he has been thrice-married and has two adult children who rarely speak to him. At the beginning of his campaign last spring, he sat for a celebrity photo shoot smooching with his third wife, who snuggled in his lap.

“It bordered on science fiction to think that someone as liberal on as many issues as Rudy Giuliani could become the Republican nominee,” said Nelson Warfield, a Republican consultant who has long studied the former mayor’s career. “Rudy didn’t even care enough about conservatives to lie to us. The problem wasn’t the calendar; it was the candidate.”

Several of Mr. Giuliani’s campaign aides acknowledged as much Tuesday. They say he tried to tack right without ever really convincing voters that he had experienced a change of heart. And an adviser who has known Mr. Giuliani since the early 1990s and spoke on condition of anonymity said the mayor’s early poll numbers struck him as ephemeral.

“His numbers were built on name recognition and celebrity,” this adviser said. “He had so many of his old friends around him, sometimes it was like he was running for president of Staten Island.”

Still, in the beginning, few such cracks were evident in the Giuliani campaign machine.

Mr. Giuliani led the Republican field in polls throughout the summer, as his support peaked in August in New York Times/CBS News polls at 38 percent nationally in a four-way fight with Mr. McCain, Mr. Romney and Fred Thompson. That put him 20 points ahead of his next closest competitor, Mr. Thompson, who has since dropped out of the race.

Mr. Giuliani often played to large crowds in New Hampshire and on forays through the Deep South; everyone seemed to love his tough talk on terrorism. When Mr. McCain’s campaign nearly flat-lined last summer, as he ran low on money, Mr. Giuliani seemed poised to take great advantage.

No candidate last summer sent out as many direct-mail appeals in New Hampshire as Mr. Giuliani. Last fall, the campaign also broadcast its first television commercials there, ultimately spending more than $3 million on advertisements, and dispatched Mr. Giuliani there for lots of retail campaigning in a state where voters tend to worry more about taxes and the military than conservative social issues. And the candidate seemed at peace with this choice.

“It is not inconceivable that you could, if you won Florida, turn the whole thing around,” Mr. Giuliani told The Washington Post in late November on a bus trip through New Hampshire. “I’d rather not do it that way. That would create ulcers for my entire staff and for me.”

But Mr. Giuliani’s campaign was stumbling, even if it was not immediately evident. He leaned on friendly executives who would let him speak to employees in company cafeterias. Mr. Romney and Mr. McCain, by contrast, compiled lists of undecided Republican voters and invited them — sometimes weeks in advance — to town-hall-style meetings.

“Rudy Giuliani had a tremendous opportunity in New Hampshire that his campaign never embraced,” said Fergus Cullen, the state Republican chairman. “They vacillated between being half committed and three-quarters committed, and that doesn’t work up here.”

Mr. Giuliani also relied on a New York-style approach to photo-friendly crowds. “Rudy went very heavy on Potemkin Village stops, working what I call ‘hostage audiences,’ “ Mr. Cullen said. “It looked like he was campaigning, but he didn’t know who he was talking to.”

A curious new vulnerability also arose. As mayor, Mr. Giuliani took much joy in crawling through the weeds of policy debate, flashing his issue mastery. But as a presidential candidate, he as often seemed ill at ease.

Mr. Giuliani once embraced gun control, gay rights and abortion rights; he knew that all of these issues would be a tough sell to Republicans. While he never shifted positions as sharply as Mr. Romney — who renounced his former support of abortion and gay rights — he as often occupied a muddled middle ground that pleased no one.

Storm clouds over campaign
This became most evident in the first Republican debate. Asked about repealing Roe v. Wade, he was equivocal.

“It would be O.K. to repeal,” he said. “Or it would be O.K. also if a strict constructionist judge viewed it as precedent, and I think a judge has to make that decision.”

Later, he said that the decision on abortion should be left to women — but that he would appoint strict constructionist judges of the type who had favored overturning Roe v. Wade.

“Give him credit — he sort of stuck to his positions,” Mr. Warfield said. “It made him a man of principle, but it won’t make him the Republican nominee.”

Storm clouds swept over the Giuliani campaign in October and November. A federal prosecutor indicted his friend and former police commissioner, Bernard B. Kerik. And a report indicated that Mr. Giuliani had spent city money to visit his girlfriend, now his wife, in the Hamptons; the police also provided some security for his new love.

Cause and effect is difficult to chart in a presidential campaign. Mr. Giuliani’s poll numbers did not fall off the table. But the news gave newly wary voters another reason to reconsider him.

By late fall, Mr. Giuliani’s poll numbers were fading in New Hampshire, and he trailed Mr. Romney and Mr. McCain. He began a curious two-step, saying he would compete in but probably not win in New Hampshire.

Weeks earlier, he had executed a similar tactical retreat in South Carolina — he and his campaign strategist, Mike DuHaime, said they hoped voters would cast ballots for him, but they did not necessarily expect to win the state.

That was a tough pitch in states where voters much pride themselves on being taken seriously by candidates.

“DuHaime comes out and says it’s all about delegates, rather than winning the state,” Mr. Cullen said. “It was amazing. It was the talk of every Dunkin’ Donuts and rotary club.”

A retreat to Florida
By late December, Mr. Giuliani made a fateful decision. He formally abandoned plans to run hard in and perhaps win New Hampshire or Michigan. Instead, he made sporadic appearances in those states and retreated to Florida, where he would make something of a final stand.

This was a deeply controversial move; no one had won an election by essentially skipping the first four or five caucuses and primaries. With this decision, he consigned himself to the media shadows during weeks of intensive coverage. But Mr. DuHaime, who had run President Bush’s effort in the Northeast in a past election, signed off on it, as did his other top campaign aides.

In the end, Mr. Giuliani and his advisers treated supporters as if they were so many serried lines of troops. If they tell a pollster in November that they are going to vote for you, this indicates they are forever in your camp, their thinking went.

But politics does not march to a military beat; it is a business of shifting loyalties. By Tuesday night, even those voters who rated terrorism as the most important issue were as likely to vote for Mr. Romney or Mr. McCain as for Mr. Giuliani. And those who had voted early for Mr. Giuliani now felt a sense of irrelevance.

“I’ve already voted; I vote for Mr. Giuliani,” David Brown, 70, said in Sun City Center Florida. “I wish I’d voted for Mr. Romney.”

So Mr. Giuliani confronts the hardest of choices, as he finished far behind two other candidates in a state he vowed to win. Some of his former aides, particularly those who hail from his days at City Hall, have urged him to slog on to New York, New Jersey and California on Feb. 5.

But there, too, the ground is shifting. Only weeks ago, Mr. DuHaime spoke in a call about the former mayor’s strong lead in those states. “Some of these leads are momentum-proof at this point,” he said.

Mr. Giuliani now trails or is at best tied in polls in all of those states. And soon after that phone call, reporters received a memorable e-mail rebuttal from Mr. Romney’s spokesman, Kevin Madden.

“Mayor Giuliani’s momentum-proof national polling lead, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny all walk into a bar,” it began. “You’re right. None of them exist.”

Dalia Sussman and Russ Buettner contributed reporting.