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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Having spent significant portions of my adult life living and working in Florida, I have developed more than a passing interest in this year's Republican primary there, taking place today, Jan. 29, if you are reading these words on this news vehicle's official date of publication.

In the fashion of recent teen movie titles, I have come to view the interesting 2008 GOP contest there under the title "Rudy Giuliani's Excellent Adventure in the Sunshine State." Only by this time it doesn't look so excellent for "America's mayor," as Rudy devotees are fond of calling him.

Until recent weeks Giuliani was portrayed in the press as a shoo-in for Florida's 57 winner-take-all delegates. He decided months ago to go "all in" with his campaign chips on the Florida contest -- figuring Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada might be a waste of time and money with so many competitors, and that Florida, the first of the big population states, would be an excellent launching pad victory for the two dozen Super Tuesday primaries on Feb. 5.

While his opponents were frantically hop-scotching the country daily, blowing money hither and yon and forgetting what states they were actually in at any given moment, Rudy would be focused solely on Florida, outspending rivals and shoring up an insurmountable lead -- or so this questionable strategy held.

As long ago as last August, Giuliani's campaign had already spent $500,000 on early advertising buys, and by last weekend:

At one point during late December, Giuliani -- according to usually reliable pollsters -- seemed to have locked up more than 35 percent of the vote, leading his closest rivals by at least a 15 percentage point bulge.

Yet by last weekend his campaign seemed to have suffered an almost irreversible resupination. By the weekend Giuliani was trailing Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in at least seven respected major polls by an average of 9 points -- and in a few by as many as 16 percentage points. He barely led former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee -- who is dauntingly short on campaign money -- by an average 3 percentage points. In a couple of in-state polls Giuliani was now dead even with the lightly regarded Arkansan within the margin of error.

Further, the influential Rasmussen Reports telephone survey last week showed Giuliani a distant third in Florida with only 18 percentage points of total support among those surveyed.

Two weeks ago a dozen salaried senior campaign staffers for Giuliani offered to forego their January paychecks, a sign widely interpreted as a looming shortage in the once-overflowing campaign war chest. This is foreboding. Republican primary veterans estimate it will cost $35 million to run one week of heavy media advertising in the Super Tuesday states. Even more disturbing for Rudy, his ads don't seem that effective. He did spend -- even at a distance -- more than $3 million on radio, TV and direct mail ads in New Hampshire, and finished a poor fourth. (New Hampshire voters like to look you right in the eye, face-to-face, to size you up.)

In the closing days of the Florida campaign, he launched two new ads costing about $650,000 in expensive Florida markets. One urged viewers to ignore media analysts -- usually a sign of panic in election campaigns.

And then on Saturday, with fewer than 72 hours left before the voting, came the cruel blow that historians may describe as the coup de grace for Giuliani's presidential hopes.

Hugely popular Florida governor Charlie Crist -- previously scheduled by personal pledge to endorse Rudy at his key campaign rally in Orlando -- appeared at a St. Petersburg dinner with John McCain and endorsed the Arizona senator instead. This cannot help but be viewed by Giuliani as a callous betrayal and personal affront.

Giuliani never forgot to praise Crist during almost every appearance on the Florida campaign trail. In 2006, he traveled to Florida to campaign for Crist. When he was in Tallahassee, Rudy would invariably drop by the governor's office to chat. Earlier this month Rudy even stowed his personal fiscal conservative philosophy to endorse Crist's pet National Catastrophe Fund, a federal insurance bail-out designed for Floridians paying astronomical premiums after recent devastating hurricanes. If brought to fruition, that fund will cost national taxpayers $200 billion. It hasn't received enough coverage yet to cheese off citizens across the country.

John McCain, by contrast, has held publicly that American taxpayers throughout the land should not have to bail out Floridians. He's against the catastrophe fund. The gubernatorial betrayal -- which may end up working against the Florida governor's own interests -- must be totally inexplicable to a man of Giuliani's black-and-white thinking.

In a speech he gave Saturday night after the governor's switcheroo, the usually exuberant Giuliani was described by Fox News as appearing "deflated" and flat in his delivery. Go figure.

So what happened to the onetime Republican frontrunner? He forgot three key rules that most political insiders respect:

  1. News coverage always trumps advertising in polling booth worth. Voters know paid-for descriptions of self are always going to be positive and subjective. While Giuliani was frittering away millions on advertising, expecting to impress Florida Republican voters, his rivals were dominating the news pages and broadcast analyses with their victories in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Rudy actually led the early polls in South Carolina. He should have stayed there.
  2. Momentum is king. When McCain came roaring out of New Hampshire and South Carolina with primary triumphs, he captured the statewide attention in Florida. Giuliani sacrificed any chance at momentum by making Florida his first real try. Read the blogs on the Internet. Several Floridians say they switched from Rudy to John because they "want to vote for a winner."
  3. Smooth over old contentions. When you abandon any state battlefield, you give the "opposition research" diggers time and motive to compile negative material. Giuliani -- a veritable hero after 9/11 -- should have been confident of winning the important and delegate-rich New York, Connecticut and New Jersey primaries in a cakewalk. Now they're all up for grabs. By failing to mend fences back in his home territory before embarking on a shot at national prominence, Giuliani unintentionally encouraged what could be terminal back-biting.

Rudolph Giuliani was always an in-your-face, ill-tempered guy with a contentious personality, even to loyalists and friends during his years as New York City mayor. It is coming back to haunt him.

His former counsel, Michael C. Finnegan, an influential man with many Manhattan contacts, is running as a John McCain delegate in the New York primary. Politicians have long memories. Giuliani's GOP colleague, former governor George Pataki, has withheld his endorsement of Giuliani so far -- and probably will never give it -- because, it is thought, Rudy was impolitic enough to endorse Democrat Mario Cuomo when Pataki ran against him in 1994. Firefighters and police love Rudy in other locations, but many Manhattan firemen publicly blame him for failing to provide available communication upgrades before 9/11, a lack in technology that cost lives.

While he's been busy courting Floridians, the media back in Gotham have been slaughtering him. The current issue of "Gentlemen's Quarterly" -- a heavily perfumed national magazine that makes me sneeze upon arrival, and headquartered on Times Square -- carries "An Oral History of Rudy Giuliani's Temper" that concludes "You Need Mental Help" on its first page headline. The six pages of interviews and answers would be deadly to any presidential aspirant.

Louis Anemone, retired New York City police chief: "He has this streak, Rudy, where he looks for unnecessary confrontations."

Former mayor Ed Koch: "Anybody I know would be afraid to talk to the press about Giuliani. They don't want to incur his anger. I don't give a shit."

Jerry Hauer, Rudy's former director of emergency management: "Rudy has this litigious nature about him where he's out to screw anybody that doesn't go along with what he wants."

Floyd Abrams, famous constitutional lawyer who described his conversation with a conservative former federal prosecutor he wouldn't identify, but who was not surprised Giuliani was doing well in the early polls: "He said ... he thought he was a good candidate. I said 'Are you supporting him?' And he looked at me and said: 'Well, no. I know him.'"

Raymond Horton, a Columbia Business School professor of ethics, says, "To me, 9/11 symbolizes the worst of Rudy, not the best of Rudy. Because his immediate response was that we should suspend the mayoral elections so he could be mayor beyond his term. It gave him a second life, politically. He was dead and gone politically until 9/11."

Jimmy Breslin, the famous columnist, once called Giuliani "a small man in search of a balcony."

Former New York City housing official Matthew Brinckerhoff told The New York Times last week "the culture of retaliation was really quite remarkable" in the Giuliani administrations.

Should Rudy Giuliani somehow overcome his daring-but-dumb Florida decision and pull off an amazing comeback to become the Republican nominee, the question remains, can he survive this type of devastating negative publicity once it hits the national scene? It is sure to swell exponentially should he remain in the race.

We may know the answer within hours.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Jan. 29 2008