Rudy on ’08: I Should Have Contested Iowa

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You may have seen that Bill Kristol said yesterday that two reliable sources have told him Rudy Giuliani “intends to throw his hat in the ring” for President. It’s a little hard to take the idea seriously, given what an epic fiasco Giuliani’s 2008 campaign turned out to be. (Rudy started out with sky-high name recognition and national approval ratings before spending $50 million to win a single delegate. But Kristol assures us that Rudy is wiser for the experience. For one thing, he says Giuliani knows he made a huge mistake by not putting up a harder fight in New Hampshire (although he certainly didn’t ignore the state) and by banking everything on winning the Florida primary, by which time he was a dead man walking.

But Giuliani has other thoughts about what went wrong in 2008, as he explained to me in an interview the following year.We spoke in mid-2009, for a story I wrote about Rudy’s potential (and unrealized) run for governor of New York. Giuliani told me back then that he was also considering another presidential bid–he noted that many past Republican Presidents, like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, had been prior primary losers–and that he had indeed learned lessons from his ’08 train wreck. Among other things, Giuliani complained that the GOP primary process favors conservatives over moderates, that he was prepared for a showdown with Mitt Romney but not John McCain, and that he should have contested the Iowa caucuses. Here are some excerpts:

In my campaign we didn’t figure out the calendar well enough. And this is not meant as an excuse, but if you were to make New York, California — [make] those primaries first, you’d get different results in the Republican Party. So that does have something to do with it. In some ways the order of the primaries sort of moves you towards a candidate that at least has to run as a more right-wing candidate than ultimately can carry the northeast and the west…

I wish I had figured out that we weren’t going to raise $100 million… We based it on what President Bush was able to do in 2000 and 2004, but didn’t anticipate the following, which seems pretty obvious in retrospect: That there were three or four people going after the same money. So we should’ve realized our budget was a $50 million budget… We had a great organization, we were really ready for a general election… We had people in every state, we were organized in every state… So in retrospect I would have had a more focused campaign on Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina, and not built this organization – it was sort of like putting the cart before the horse.Then there were a lot of other things that went wrong. I think we should have contested Iowa. My instincts originally were, you lose, you gotta go down fighting. You can’t allow yourself to lose a primary. And then the strategy that I was given said, ‘You gotta ignore it.’ The money dictated that. But I think I should’ve fought Iowa hard. That was the beginning of becoming irrelevant. And then the worst possibility emerged – John McCain emerged and not Mitt Romney. We made too many assumptions that turned out to be wrong. We assumed we’d raise $100 million, we didn’t. We assumed that John was gonna drop out, and he didn’t. We assumed our opponent would be Romney, and we sort of geared up for Romney All of sudden Huckabee wins in Iowa and there goes Romney. McCain wins in New Hampshire  which is Romney’s back yard… By the time we got to Florida, the guy that I shared the most voters with was the frontrunner… I was the number two choice of all his voters, and he was the number two choice of all my voters.

Some of Rudy’s explanations are more convincing than others: Why didn’t he anticipate the fundraising competition he’d face, for instance? And while it’s true that the rise of a war hero like John McCain–who could neutralize Giuliani’s 9/11-based security credentials without saying a word–was a bad break, that was no shock either. McCain began the 2008 race as the presumptive nominee.

As for Iowa, even if Giuliani had contested the caucuses, it’d hard to see a pro-choice former New York mayor escaping a blowout there. It’s hardly clear avoiding Iowa is worse than contesting and being blown out. (John Huntsman seems to agree). And if Rudy does run in 2012, Iowa’s GOP activists, heady with Tea Party anger, may be even less hospitable to a wealthy Manhattan businessman. Which makes it sound like Kristol’s right: For Rudy in 2012, it would be New Hampshire or bust. Again.