Watching Wednesday’s G.O.P. debate, it was remarkably easy to imagine Rudy Giuliani as his party’s nominee next fall.
Forget the endless talk about a mutiny from the right: Most “social conservatives”—a term that casts a much wider net than most analysis allows for—have been in awe of Rudy Giuliani for six years now and would be plenty comfortable with him leading the fight against Hillary Clinton.
What has been much trickier to envision is a roadmap that will actually lead Mr. Giuliani, who has lagged behind (sometimes distantly) in the crucial early primary and caucus states, to the nomination. He has fared much better in polls in the big states that will vote en masse next February 5th, but that standing could easily evaporate with poor showings in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina—especially if another candidate seizes the momentum.
Suddenly, though, a Giuliani nomination roadmap is starting to make sense.
The nominating calendar remains in flux, a matter of intense dispute between several states, but it’s now almost certain that Michigan and Florida will join the early action, holding their own contests before the February 5 mega-primary. The Democratic candidates are threatening to boycott both states, but The Republicans—at least for now—aren’t.
It remains to be seen how much weight the media will put on Michigan and Florida, but both states are naturally suited to Mr. Giuliani. Their electorates are large, independent-minded and (by G.O.P. standards) relatively moderate. Unlike Iowa, where precinct-based organizing is so crucial, and New Hampshire, where voters expect to meet with each candidate personally, Mr. Giuliani’s name recognition and start power—not to mention his strong financial position—can carry him far in Michigan and Florida.
Wins in these states could provide him with some of the momentum he will badly need to maintain his standing on February 5. Right now, Michigan is set to vote after New Hampshire and Iowa, but before South Carolina. Mr. Giuliani runs well in polls there, although a complicating factor is Mitt Romney’s personal ties to the state, where he was born and raised and where his father served as Governor in the 1960’s. Florida figures to go after South Carolina, at the very end of January. Mr. Giuliani’s lead there is more firmly established.
But Michigan and Florida may simply be bonuses for Mr. Giuliani, because the traditional lead-off states are actually lining up surprisingly well for him.
Start with Iowa, which will go first, probably on January 3. Mr. Giuliani stopped campaigning there over the summer, although he hasn’t formally written off the state, avoiding a mistake that helped doom the past candidacies of Wesley Clark, John McCain and even Al Gore (in 1988). Mr. Giuliani has sufficiently lowered expectations and, with his celebrity and against a rather weak field, he can still make a respectable showing on caucus day and call it a moral victory.
The main threats to Mr. Giuliani in Iowa are Mr. Romney and Fred Thompson, who run first and second in polls now. Unlike Mr. Giuliani, though, their nomination strategies will depend on very strong performances in Iowa. For Mr. Romney, who has spent heavily on television ads and built a 10-point lead in the polls, an Iowa win is an absolute must: His strategy calls for winning the early states and creating unstoppable momentum for the February 5 states, where he now trails badly. And Mr. Thompson, supposedly the choice of the activist conservative base, will be very hard pressed to explain a poor showing in a state dominated by activist conservatives.
This is where Mr. Giuliani may pick up an unexpected assist, because there may be a real darkhorse in Iowa: Mike Huckabee, the personable former Arkansas governor who has moved into third place in polls. He’s climbing fast, and his message and style matches Iowa perfectly. Meanwhile, Mr. Thompson’s campaign already seems to be losing momentum. The press reviews have been awful, and there was nothing in his much-anticipated performance in this week’s debate to suggest he will inspire and motivate the conservative masses. Moreover, Mr. Romney’s early momentum may be slowing. His numbers in Iowa have stopped growing, and other candidates are only now readying television ads of their own.
It is not unfathomable that Mr. Huckabee could win the Iowa caucuses—or at least fare well enough to be declared the winner by the media, as second-place finisher Gary Hart was in 1984. That alone might kill Mr. Romney’s nomination chances and leave Mr. Thompson on the ropes. But Mr. Giuliani, who has downplayed Iowa, wouldn’t be hurt at all.
The race will then move to New Hampshire, where Mr. Giuliani is running to win. So far, his chief rival in the state has been Mr. Romney, with Mr. McCain—who is essentially bypassing Iowa for a chance to revive his campaign in friendly New Hampshire—a strong third. But if Mr. Romney is embarrassed in Iowa, his standing in New Hampshire will almost certainly be undermined, and a loss in the Granite State would finish him off. Similarly, anything short of a win for Mr. McCain will end his longshot chances as well. In other words, Mr. Giuliani may have the opportunity to knock out two of his chief rivals with a win in New Hampshire.
Next up would probably be South Carolina—although Michigan may end up voting before it. Mr. Giuliani has already been running strongly in South Carolina polls, and his chief threat here figures to come from the southern candidates, Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Thompson. But if Mr. Thompson is wounded in Iowa and finishes as an also-ran in New Hampshire, he may not be much of a threat in South Carolina. And Mr. Huckabee, even if he scores a surprise win in Iowa, will probably not be able to follow it up in New Hampshire: His campaign is so financially-strapped that he’d have to choose between New Hampshire and South Carolina. With momentum on his side, South Carolina would be a winnable state for Mr. Giuliani—and under the right circumstances, he could also use it to eliminate his two southern foes.
Under this scenario, Mr. Giuliani would be the overwhelming front-runner heading into February 5, with his rivals either having dropped out or hanging on in desperation. A decisive February 5 win would finish them all off, and the nomination would be Mr. Giuliani’s.
There are, obviously, lots of “ifs” in this scenario and there’s every reason to think that things won’t unfold quite that neatly for Mr. Giuliani. But against Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and John McCain, his odds of pulling it off aren’t looking bad at all.