“Goodbye Rudy Tuesday.”
With that grim headline, the tabloids in his native New York summed up the former mayor’s chances on the morning of the make-or-break Florida primary.
At day’s end, their pessimism proved well-founded. Giuliani finished a fatal third in the state that he had gambled would resuscitate his ailing campaign. And though he has promised to forge ahead, his concession speech had all the marks of a withdrawal announcement; he is reportedly scheduled to endorse his friend John McCain. Yesterday’s results confirmed that the GOP race is now effectively a two-man contest between McCain and Mitt Romney.
Whether another ending was possible for the Giuliani story is a question that will be asked long after the current presidential race. It was in not-so-remote September, after all, that Giuliani led the polls in New Hampshire, as pundits wagered that his established record as a tax-cutter -- 23 different taxes were cut or eliminated on his mayoral watch -- would carry him to victory in a state famous for spurning sales and income taxes. Burnishing the aura of inevitability, an October poll of Republicans nationwide found that half of the party faithful expected Giuliani to capture the nomination. Victory seemed certain.
How quickly things fell apart. Not only did Giuliani not win in New Hampshire, but he struggled to hold on to fourth place, edging out fringe favorite Ron Paul by the slenderest of margins. Gone was the confidence in his success. Within days of Giuliani’s Granite State defeat, just 15 percent of polled Republicans judged him likely to win the nomination. Rudy, the new consensus held, could fail.
Florida represented his final hope. Choosing the state to make his last stand, Giuliani committed his full resources to convincing Republican residents that, whatever the statistical trends, he remained a viable option.
On paper, the strategy made sense. Number-crunchers for the Giuliani campaign stressed that they had it all figured out: Were Giuliani to win Florida’s 57 delegates and put in strong showings in New York, New Jersey, California, and other states, he could conceivably emerge with the 1,191 delegates needed to win the nomination. But as the mayor’s poll numbers cratered in the days ahead of yesterday’s primary, it became clear that the numbers would not add up. In desperation, Giuliani turned to the trusted rule of politics: when all else fails, pander.
It was not a pretty sight. There was little, in the days before the primary, that Giuliani did not promise Floridians. Massive funding for the NASA space program? It would be “a priority for a Giuliani administration from day one,” Giuliani pledged. A “national catastrophe fund” that would require the whole country to shoulder the higher insurance premiums of Florida residents? Sign the mayor up. Where previously he stressed the necessity of immigrants learning English, even patronizing a Philadelphia cheesesteak stand whose owner famously urged customers to order in English, Giuliani now released a Spanish-language ad to appeal to Florida’s large Hispanic immigrant community. For admirers of Giuliani’s fierce independence and empiricism, it was dismaying to see his campaign reduced to cheap calculation.
Worse, from a political standpoint, was that none of this helped Giuliani’s campaign. Though his third-place finish in Florida was his best showing to date, exit polls make clear that Giuliani was never a serious contender, finishing 16 percentage points and more than 300,000 votes behind second place Mitt Romney. Indeed, Giuliani barely held off Mike Huckabee, beating the former Arkansas governor by a single percentage point -- a major embarrassment for the Giuliani campaign considering how little time and money Huckabee invested in the state.
There is little sunshine ahead after the Sunshine State. McCain has been leading Giuliani in New York. Reports are already circulating that today Giuliani will endorse McCain in California. After months of hard-fought campaigning, Giuliani’s long-shot bid for the GOP nomination can only be described, as an unflattering book about the mayor had it, as a “grand illusion.”
In more ways than one, that is to be regretted. Even as his pro-choice policy preferences ill-pleased social conservatives, Giuliani’s campaign had much to recommend it. Pointing to his success in a city once crippled by high-taxes, deficits, and job stagnation, the fiscally conservative Club for Growth noted that “[t]here is much to be impressed with in Rudy Giuliani's tax record.” (Far more skeptical was the organization’s assessment of front-runner John McCain, who not only voted against President Bush’s tax cuts, twice, but railed against tax relief using the “class-warfare demagoguery” beloved of the Left.)
Giuliani’s thinking on health care was equally innovative. He unveiled a free-market friendly plan that improved on the wasteful, government-run model by expanding Health Savings Accounts and allowing consumers to purchase health plans across state lines. By contrast, as governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney supported a universal health care mandate that forced taxpayers to purchase insurance whether they wanted to or not. (Wisely, Romney has since retreated from the plan.)
But it was on his signature issue, the War on Terror -- or as Giuliani likes to say, the “terrorists’ war on us” -- that Giuliani truly distinguished himself from the field. While John McCain bowed to the media’s consensus and promised to close Guantanamo Bay prison, Giuliani staunchly defended it against baseless charges of widespread detainee abuse.
On Iraq, Giuliani unapologetically defended the invasion, correctly stressing the absurdity of fighting a war on terrorism while leaving in power one of its leading patrons in Saddam Hussein. With regard to Iran, Giuliani made the valuable point, actively denied by the Democratic contenders and sometimes even by his Republican counterparts: that the danger from Iran was not confined to its nuclear ambitions but included its sponsorship of jihadist terror across the Middle East.
When it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the current and lamentable obsession of President Bush, the man who famously evicted Yasser Arafat from a concert in Lincoln Center perceptively observed that, if anything, “too much emphasis has been placed on brokering negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.” Peace can be brokered when the Palestinians abandon terrorism, Giuliani said, not before.
For all the flaws of his campaign, Giuliani was a powerful voice for keeping America on offense against Islamic terrorism; the Republican debate will be the poorer without him.
Which is not to say that Giuliani has ceased to be a factor in the GOP race. In his victory speech last night, John McCain paid tribute to Giuliani, calling him an “inspiration.” Gracious as it was, it was also a clear appeal for Giuliani’s support. In a very different way than he intended, America’s Mayor may yet leave his mark on the presidential race.