GOP Presidential Candidate Rudi Giuliani's coastal strategy has bombed. For most of 2007, the combative mayor of New York - declared "America's Mayor" by some - had led in the national polls. Candidates Mike Huckabee (originally little-known outside of the southern Bible Belt), Mitt Romney (relatively little known outside of the northeast), and John McCain (well known, but lacking Mr. Giuliani's charisma and fame) lagged behind the famous mayor of New York who had rallied his city in the days following the terrible attacks of September 11, 2001.
Mr. Giuliani disdained as "meaningless" the early caucuses in Iowa and the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Instead, he gambled on hard campaigning in Florida for a win he believed would jump-start his presidential bid. Early on, the strategy appeared sound, as he led by significant margins on the strength of his record in New York. Transplanted New Yorkers and retired northeasterners in Florida (went the conventional thinking) would go for Mr. Giuliani in a big way because of his credibility on national security. Relying on his rep as a hard-hitting mayor who cleaned up New York and stood up to terrorists, he would roll into Super Tuesday and take California, New York, Jersey (all coastal states). After that, he would be unstoppable.
I admit that I like Mr. Giuliani's political persona - his optimism and his upbeat, can-do attitude toward the challenges America faces. Many voters like it, too. He worked wonders with New York City - giving the bums-rush to the panhandlers and squeegee-hustlers, hitting crime, and making the city safer. He lowered taxes and invited business to stay in the world's greatest center of commerce. When the 9-11 attacks destroyed the heart of the financial district and threatened to throw the city into chaos, Mr. G was a strong, defiant and reassuring presence. He held the thing together and got the city back on its feet. You never saw Rudi Giuliani weeping on live TV like the governor of Louisiana did during the Katrina floods in New Orleans. He was tough and confident. Americans of both parties respected him.
People whose political perspicacity exceeds mine thought Mr. G would emerge as the GOP's choice for the showdown with Hillary Clinton in ‘08. I wasn't as sure - noting hizzoner's personal baggage (three marriages and a messy divorce) and his support for liberal social policies, including abortion and gay rights. Being mayor of New York is one thing, but transferring the politics and lifestyle of that place to heartland America is another thing entirely.
New York people have a famously dismissive attitude toward the vast area that lies between the two coasts. They call it "flyover country" - showing that they consider the east and west coasts to be the country's truly significant regions. The attitude includes politics, economics and social issues. They have a point, but it is not necessarily the only point to be made. It's a big country.
I do not suggest that this bi-coastal attitude governed Mr. Giuliani's actions in every respect. His campaign managers undoubtedly saw the importance of husbanding scarce campaign resources. They could not help but note the non-representative identity of small states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, while the winner-take-all prize of Florida - with its richly diverse population, its many transplanted northeasterners, and its 57 delegates - glimmered before them. By that analysis, it was perhaps natural to regard the earlier contests as mere "heats" that a champ like the mayor could safely ignore. Better to save one's strength for the Big One.
Unfortunately, Mr. Giuliani and his gang forgot about the media - particularly, the media's power to make mountains out of political molehills. Starting with Iowa - a non-representative (mostly white, conservative, evangelical) slice of America as ever was - the media trumpeted every primary (or caucus) as a big deal and every "winner" as the putative new leader in his (or her) party's race for the nomination. Unknowns Huckabee and Romney vaulted to new prominence in Iowa and Michigan, and John McCain won "comeback" victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina - all before the road-show moved on to Florida for Rudi's Big Moment.
But it was too late. The Moment never came because those once obscure candidates had used Mr. Giuliani's absence from the earlier contests to run past him. With their early wins they got their message and persona out, and the national media - ever on the lookout for conflict and a real fight - helped pump them up. Simply being better known carried Mr. G at first, but he failed to build on that notoriety with a program attractive to the core of the Republican Party. Most of that core lives in "flyover country". Somehow, the quintessential New Yorker failed to see this.
Of course, everyone knew Rudi was never going to be the conservative heir to Ronald Reagan. That was beyond the pale. The expectation was that his national security credentials and his perceived strength against Hillary Clinton would eclipse his personal baggage and his moderate-to-liberal proclivities - thus enabling his election. Had the election been held in early 2007, when the GOP field was still forming, Rudi might well have been the nominee.
But a year later - a lifetime in political reckoning - the world is a different place. Hillary Clinton's flaws are showing, and her selection for the Democratic nomination is in doubt. Barak Obama has risen to be the party's new "savior". And Rudi's time has passed. The once-admired old warrior is on the sidelines, watching the parade of "hope" and "change" march into the future. I'm a little sorry about that. We could have done worse. With either of the two Democratic contenders, we certainly shall.