Giulian's 'insurmountable' lead evaporates

January 27, 2008 12:06:11 PM PST
Rudy Giuliani appeared to have New Jersey in his back pocket. As the former New York City mayor's sputtering bid for the Republican presidential nomination heads to a crucial test in Florida on Tuesday, however, victory is no longer assured anywhere - not even his in home state or its closest neighbors. Even Giuliani's ability to remain in the race through Super Tuesday is in doubt.

"Clearly the strategy was to plant the flag there (in Florida) and build on that established momentum on Super Tuesday," said Bob Franks, a former Republican congressman who is co-chair of Giuliani's New Jersey campaign. "It's a strategy they had to pursue, and we are hopeful of the outcome."

Giuliani's support in New Jersey and elsewhere has slipped precipitously in recent weeks, according to polls.

At the same time, Arizona Sen. John McCain, another moderate, has come on strong, eroding Giuliani's seemingly insurmountable lead in New Jersey. According to the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, released Wednesday, McCain actually edged past Giuliani in New Jersey, though the margin is too small to be considered statistically significant.

"We feel very good," said Sen. Bill Baroni, who chairs McCain's New Jersey campaign. "Just as last summer we didn't get overly down when things didn't look so good, we're not getting overly confident now."

The stakes are high for the Republicans, with the winner gaining all 52 of New Jersey's Republican delegates.

The state's Republican delegates had been awarded proportionally, 3 to the winner of each congressional district and 10 to the winner of the popular vote. But Republicans switched the system in June to winner-take-all after Giuliani backers urged the change, believing it would benefit their candidate.

"If Giuliani does well her but doesn't win, he doesn't get anything," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "If he does lousy in Florida, he's done. End of story."

The campaign's strategy was to use the momentum of a win in Florida to do well on Feb. 5.

"Coming out of Florida, the idea was they could count on five states in their pockets - New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and California - without spending any money," said Murray. "He had astounding leads in those states going into the fall."

With key staffers foregoing their paychecks in January, the Giuliani campaign does not have the kind of cash necessary to buy advertising the most expensive media markets in the country ? New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Murray added.

Nonetheless, New York, New Jersey and California are "must-wins" for Giuliani if he has any hope of capturing the nomination, said Seton Hall University political scientist Joseph Marbach.

But first he must survive Florida, Marbach said.

Politics-watchers agree that Florida is a make-or-break state for Giuliani.

"If Giuliani can prevail in Florida, I think he will be back in a matter of hours," said Franks. "He will have demonstrated that his campaign strategy was successful in translating his message into votes."

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign is paying more attention to New Jersey.

McCain named a New Jersey campaign team this month and was to open a statewide campaign on Saturday, a more formalized operation than the grass roots effort that had volunteers working out of their homes or offices.

Giuliani is still far ahead in fundraising, however.

The former mayor next-door has swooped in to the Garden State many times in recent months to infuse his fledging campaign with cash and to campaign for himself and others.

He has raised three times as much money here as McCain - $3.4 million vs. $1.1 million through September, the most recent Federal Election Commission figures available.

Yet, in an unmistakable sign that New Jersey is no longer guaranteed "Rudy Country," McCain will make a campaign appearance here on Feb. 4 - the day before 22 states including New Jersey hold their presidential primaries. New Jersey moved up its primary, from June to February, with the hope that the earlier date would make the state matter more in choosing the parties' presidential nominees.

As Baroni puts it, "We've never been through anything like this before. New Jersey has never been relevant."