Giuliani’s Gamble

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Rudy Giuliani’s election strategy hasn’t really wavered since he entered the race for the Republican nomination ten months ago. The idea was that Rudy would let his competitors fight it out in the first four contests — Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina — and then he would render those early results meaningless by winning Florida on Jan. 29 and scoring a sweep of the biggest Feb. 5 states, including New York, California, New Jersey and Illinois. Suddenly, Giuliani would have both a huge lead in delegates and all the momentum. The race would essentially be over.

There was always a lot of risk involved in this “later states” or “national” strategy, since it was predicated on the untested notion that a candidate could lose the first four nominating contests and still emerge as the GOP nominee. But for a while, with Giuliani maintaining a large national lead and showing surprising strength in New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina, the strategy seemed pretty sound.

But now all of the inherent risks in the strategy are revealing themselves again. Even though Giuliani’s team has reason to be glad about Mike Huckabee’s surge in Iowa, since by winning Iowa Huckabee could seriously and perhaps fatally wound Mitt Romney’s campaign, Huck’s surge hasn’t come solely at Romney’s expense. Suddenly, the former Arkansas governor is tied with Giuliani in national polls. And with the fight right now focused on Iowa and New Hampshire, and therefore on Romney, Huckabee, McCain and Thompson, Giuliani is likely to be squeezed out of the media picture between now and Jan. 8. If that happens, his national poll numbers might fade as well. (Giuliani’s big speech in Florida yesterday was designed to steal back some media attention. But as the New York Times mentioned this morning, the spotlight stayed on the Romney-Huckabee fight.)

It’s certainly still possible that the GOP race will be such a muddle after the first four contests that Giuliani will be perfectly positioned to swoop in, win the big states and secure the nomination. But it is just as possible – and more in line with past election cycles — that someone will emerge from the early contests with too much momentum to be stopped. Giuliani is now like a football team whose playoff fate hinges on the wins and losses of other teams.