by Paul West
The early results from the 2008 primaries and caucuses have been rolling in, and the verdict is clear: Rudy can't fail.
When he launched his presidential campaign in Iowa last spring, Rudolph Giuliani boasted that he would "win the caucus, and surprise everybody."
He didn't, of course. The biggest surprise of the Giuliani campaign has been how successful he has been in spinning his failures and continuing to be considered a serious contender, despite an unblemished record of futility that has him on pace to be the largest flop of 2008 and one of the biggest busts in presidential campaign history.
You could look it up, in the immortal words of the old professor, Casey Stengel, late of Rudy's beloved New York Yankees (except when he was pulling for Boston, as part of a transparent effort to court denizens of Red Sox nation in neighboring New Hampshire).
In Iowa, Rudy finished sixth, with less than four percent of the vote, despite visiting more than 30 Iowa cities and campaigning in the state, off and on, until the weekend before the vote.
The mayor explained his decision not to compete more seriously in the first voter test of 2008 as a strategic move.
This is the strategy we selected pretty close to day one,'' he told reporters on the day Iowans voted. He was speaking from New Hampshire, which was holding its primary the following week and where he pushed much harder than he did in Iowa.
New Hampshire became Giuliani's focus last fall, once it became clear to his advisers that early voting states might, once again, play an outsized role in picking the nominee. It was risky to wait until Florida, the second big state, after Michigan, that would vote in January, since national attention would be focused on the early contests.
So, in mid-November, Giuliani began airing the first TV commercials of his national campaign - not in Florida, but in New Hampshire. There, as an Easterner, he figured to do better than in the Corn Belt. He wound up spending an estimated $3 million, perhaps even more.
His TV commercials, touting an I'll-keep-you-safe-from-terrorism message, were still being beamed at New Hampshire voters as they went to their polling places this month. By some estimates, Giuliani came close to spending as much as John McCain, who wound up winning the state.
"We put a lot of time into New Hampshire," Giuliani said on primary day in the Granite State. According to various estimates by news media organizations and others, he conducted more than 130 campaign events, spread out over 40-plus campaign days.
"I think we'll do well here," he added, in the election-day interview with Matt Lauer of NBC News.
But when the first primary votes were counted, Giuliani barely managed to nose out Ron Paul for fourth place. He got 9 percent and no convention delegates. Independent analysts, such as University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith, said the more Giuliani campaigned, the worse he did.
It was becoming clear. The Giuliani strategy was indeed unique: Winning by losing.
At this writing, after his sixth-place finish in Michigan, Rudy's got a chance to break the record for futility in a presidential campaign.
His more than $50 million candidacy is threatening the mark set by another tough-talking Republican who bombed: John Connally of Texas, who spent $11 million and got one delegate.
Giuliani was the front-runner in the national polls for most of the past year. Those numbers largely reflected the positive publicity he got in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
What's somewhat harder to explain is why perceptions of Giuliani's reverse momentum have been slow to influence coverage of his campaign.
The story line that has become conventional wisdom: Giuliani has decided to focus on later states, with a risky strategy of jump-starting his candidacy in Florida.
By playing down, or ignoring, his failures in New Hampshire and elsewhere, the conventional view has become that Rudy is gambling everything on an unconventional plan. The columnist George Will, who is hardly alone in perpetuating this myth, wrote recently that Giuliani "has been treading water, waiting for Florida" (rather than drowning with other also-rans, like Duncan Hunter and Ron Paul).
It's been said that Giuliani is letting the campaign come to him, and that this has never been attempted before.
Actually, it has, and it failed. Al Gore took essentially the same approach in 1988, and for much the same reason: He was too weak to win the early states, so he abandoned them and chose a later start. Gore put little effort into Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping that once the race got to the South on Super Tuesday, he'd put himself into contention. He did win some states that day, but he went nowhere after that.
Is Giuliani's candidacy facing a similarly ignominious end? He raised more money than any of his Republican rivals during the first nine months of the campaign. Now he's low on dough. Because he relied mainly on wealthy donors, he failed to establish a broad fund-raising base. Most of his donors, many from New York's financial community, have maxed out and can't give more (others didn't get rich by putting money into hopeless ventures). His top aides are now volunteers, conserving the money that's left for Florida advertising.
His popularity has nosedived in Florida, and he's lost two-thirds of his support in national polls. He's gone from first to fourth in a matter of weeks, as the early states began voting, just as those who have seen this movie before knew would happen.
He could still become the Republican nominee. John McCain's failure to repeat his 2000 primary victory in Michigan this week has thrown the Republican contest wide open. If McCain loses the South Carolina's primary this Saturday, as many are predicting, he may start looking like a one-state (New Hampshire) wonder.
Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney and, perhaps, McCain could be difficult obstacles for Giuliani to overcome in the Sunshine State, even though he's had it largely to himself, while they've been winning elsewhere.
If Giuliani rallies to take Florida, he'll enter the big round of Feb. 5 primaries with a real chance to win. Then, the most improbable strategy of the year will look like a stroke of genius, even though it was a matter of necessity, rather than choice.
If not, he'll go down as something else: the king of spin in 2008.
Paul West is the Baltimore Sun's bureau chief in Washington. He joined the paper as national political correspondent and has covered every presidential campaign since the 1980s. Before coming to Washington, he was a reporter in Texas and Georgia, where he covered education, the federal courts and local and state government and politics.