TAMPA -- The Huckaboom sweeping most of the lower 48 may have reached Florida. A Rasmussen daily poll on Friday showed the personable former Arkansas governor to be the choice of 27 percent of a sample of 685 likely Florida primary voters. Mitt Romney was second at 23 percent, Rudy Giuliani third at 19.
These are stunning numbers considering Giuliani has held a steady 2-1 lead over his nearest rivals in most Florida polls for months. And Giuliani counts on a win in big, red-state Florida January 29 to offset what are sure to be less than astounding performances by him in the smaller early primary and caucus states. He also needs Florida to give him momentum going into the 21 Super-Tuesday primaries Feb. 5. If Huckabee steals a round in Florida it would be Giuliani who is offset, and facing one hell of a hill to climb to be nominated.
If their protestations are to be believed, Giuliani's Florida brain trust isn't too concerned about the latest Rasmussen Florida numbers. Nor were the 400 or so enthusiastic supporters who showed up at the Tampa Convention Center Saturday morning to whoop up "The Nation's Mayor" at a campaign stop.
Bob Martinez of Tampa, a former Florida governor and federal drug czar under George the First, introduced Rudy at the rally and told me before the services that the Rasmussen poll may not be reliable because of its method of collecting data.
Rasmussen has predicted some elections accurately in the past, but Martinez may have a point. Rasmussen calls are automated. Respondents listen to recorded questions and respond by punching in answers into their telephone keypad. How you get a representative sample under these conditions is anybody's guess. It's hard to imagine anyone putting up with this at dinnertime. If I were called away from a grilled steak, ribs, or my wife's four-alarm Thai curry to listen to recorded political questions, I would be looking for #&*#@!! on my keypad.
Rasmussen's Friday numbers were at wide variance with a Quinnipiac poll also taken last week showing his Rudyness with a 30 to 17 lead over Romney and Huckabee still back in the pack.
Whether or not Rasmussen is measuring anything beyond voters' curious willingness to interact with recorded messages (a melancholy development in itself), it would be surprising if the Huckabee boomlet passes over Florida altogether. And Giuliani is having to deal with significant national slippage, most of it thanks to Huckabee.
In due course we'll see if Huckabee turns out to be more than the flavor of the month. Will he become President of the United States? Or will he become the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question?
It will take more than this one surprising poll to convince folks that Rudy has lost his lead in Florida. Huckabee is an intelligent, funny, personable, thoroughly charming guy. And these things count in electoral politics. But he carries more baggage than the average 747, and the scrutiny will be withering now that he holds a national lead in the polls. Besides, he's running for President of the United States, not for Miss Congeniality. Huckabee is more cuddly than Giuliani, or than any of the candidates in either party come to that. But does he have a fastball?
Tampa developer Al Austin, Giuliani's co-finance chair for Florida, puts himself in the "What, me worry?" camp as well. He reiterated the counter-punch strategy, where Rudy takes his lumps in the small states, then does well in Michigan Jan 15, in Florida January 29, and in a bunch of states Feb. 5.
"Super Tuesday will decide who the nominee is," Austin said. "If we do as well as we think we will on that day we're on our way."
Maybe so. In the meantime, Rudy and his campaign are hitting the same themes. The speech I heard Saturday morning was little different from the one I heard in New Hampshire in August. And considering Rudy's record, there's no reason to change.
Rudy is the most tested candidate in the field (on either side). In stark contrast with his primary opponents, Rudy has a record of courage, competence, and accomplishment in perhaps the most difficult executive office short of the presidency, and under the harshest of conditions. Unlike so many elected Republican officials, he has a measurable testosterone level. So there's no reason to get off the theme Giuliani hammered in his Tampa speech: "I've been tested in crisis, I'm ready to lead, and the time is now."
It's a record to run on. It may not take Giuliani all the way, especially if voters become less concerned with national security, a Rudy strong point. But it's what he has. It's considerable. And it appears that he's smart enough to stay with it.
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