TAMPA -- If Rudy Giuliani finishes a distant third in the Florida primary on Tuesday -- as current polls suggest he will -- his strategy to play rope-a-dope for the first few presidential rounds before Florida will look like the worst decision since new Coke, perhaps the worst since the designated hitter.
Whoda thunk that the guy who led in most national polls for a year could turn himself into an also-ran in a matter of weeks, just by not being part of the conversation? There's a lesson here, and it probably has to do with having to engage as soon as the battle is joined. The prevent defense doesn't work any better in politics than it does in football. And you sure don't use it in the first quarter.
A telephone poll of 800 likely voters taken Sunday through Tuesday for the St. Petersburg Times, Bay News 9, and the Miami Herald shows McCain ahead in Florida at 25 percent, Romney close behind at 23 percent, and "the nation's mayor" trailing in a tie with Mike Huckabee at 15 percent. Huckabee doesn't have the money to compete in Florida's 10 (count 'em --10) media markets, and fewer people in Florida have seen Huckabee over the last week than have seen Elvis. But Rudy continues to campaign at warp speed. For the last week any time there were more than 100 people in one place in Florida one of them was Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani has changed his campaign emphasis from 9-1-1 and defeating crime in New York to the economy, the issue foremost in the minds of Florida voters. His trump card is he's the only Republican candidate to support a national catastrophe fund to spread the risk of hurricane damage -- as well as damages from fires, floods, earthquakes, and other really bad stuff elsewhere -- across the nation. The storms of 2004 and 2005 and predictions of a stormy decade have caused property insurance rates in Florida to increase as much as 600 percent. For some Florida homeowners their property insurance cost them more than their mortgages. As the feds wind up on the hook for billions after catastrophes in the current "pay me later," ass-backwards system, it makes a great deal of sense to Floridians, many of whom have been forced to drop homeowners insurance, to provide a form of safety net before the storm arrives. This may not be enough to change Rudy's fortunes, but it's one of the best things he has now.
McCain got a serious bump from his wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina and has come from the back of the pack for his current lead in Florida polls. His campaign, which barely existed in Florida before this month, has scrambled volunteers and opened headquarters across the state. He's made nearly as many campaign appearances here since South Carolina as Giuliani has.
I was on hand for the opening of the McCain headquarters in Tampa last Saturday, and the enthusiastic volunteers there reminded me a bit of the McCarthy kids of 1968 only a little older and wearing ties. You get a feeling of a sense of mission from these supporters who are enthused about the personal qualities they see in their man. The conversation between these folks last Saturday, many of whom had not met each other before that day, was often about McCain's courage, his toughness, his straight-forwardness, his loyalty, his consistency of purpose. I'm not sure this portrait of McCain is entirely accurate, but the important thing is these people do. They're true believers. They would charge a machine-gun nest for McCain.
It's just a guess, because I haven't been there, but I doubt the level of enthusiasm was the same at the Romney headquarters. He has his supporters here, and doubtless worthy ones. But they're more likely to be reading profit and loss statements or critiquing position papers than charging machine gun nests. We'll see next Tuesday how much different this makes. After that it's on to Super Tuesday, and lord knows how you campaign for that. You probably just buy as many TV adds as you can afford and hope for the best.
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