Rudy Giuliani’s campaign, whatever he may say, is not proceeding according to plan.
The former mayor finished sixth in Iowa and barely won fourth place in New Hampshire last night, just edging out Ron Paul. The Giuliani line is that he never had a chance in the first two states and that, for him, it’s all a warm-up until Florida, which will vote on January 29.
But that’s not quite true. Giuliani may never have had a realistic chance in Iowa, but his campaign originally saw New Hampshire—where his social liberalism wouldn’t be a disqualifier and where independent-minded candidates are generally embraced—as fertile ground for an early breakthrough victory. That’s why Giuliani plopped down $2 million for a television ad blitz in the state in the late fall, an effort to emerge as the consensus alternative to Mitt Romney, who led for most of the year, among New Hampshire Republicans.
It didn’t work. Giuliani’s New Hampshire numbers didn’t budge, and by December he’d pulled his resources from the state and retreated to Florida. And that was the moment his nomination prospects virtually disappeared.
When they invested in New Hampshire back in the fall, the Giuliani campaign was correctly responding to two unexpected realities in the G.O.P. race: (1) Mike Huckabee was poised for a breakout showing in Iowa, which would make him the favorite in South Carolina; and (2) Mitt Romney, who was investing heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire, would emerge as the consensus choice of the establishment with a pair of early wins.
Given those realities, Giuliani decided to target New Hampshire, believing—again, correctly—that a Huckabee victory in Iowa would severely wound Romney in New Hampshire, creating an opening for another Republican. Giuliani further recognized that, in New Hampshire, that other Republican would never be Huckabee, given the former Arkansas Governor’s religious message. So Giuliani made a play for New Hampshire, knowing that a win would probably knock Romney out of the race and give the hesitant national G.O.P. establishment a stark choice: Giuliani and his electability or Huckabee and near-certain defeat in the fall.
What Giuliani—and most everyone else in the free world—never considered was the possibility that John McCain, who was still seen as politically lifeless back in the fall, would stage a revival. But it was McCain, powered by strong debate performances and regained (and even newfound) respect for his unwillingness to pander, who seized on the opening for a non-Romney candidate in New Hampshire. The Arizonan’s rise in Granite State polls began just as Giuliani’s ad blitz was at its peak, explaining why Giuliani was unable to buy any traction in the state.
The simple truth is that there was never any room in a Rudy Giuliani nomination scenario for a viable John McCain candidacy. When McCain tanked over the summer, Giuliani’s prospects looked rosy. But with McCain’s comeback, and especially with his New Hampshire win last night, Giuliani’s natural constituency has a new home. And even if McCain had lost to Romney last night, Giuliani would still be out of luck: The same national G.O.P. establishment he has counted on winning over would have instead shifted to Romney, seeing him as an acceptable enough alternative to Huckabee. (The G.O.P. establishment now badly wants to stop Huckabee).
Any remaining chance for Giuliani now hinges on the rapid and highly unlikely demise of both McCain and Romney. Theoretically, that could happen if Huckabee were to pull an upset win in Michigan next week, a state that McCain and Romney are fiercely contesting. Anything less than first place in Michigan should eliminate Romney, who has already lost two contests, and McCain would lose whatever advantage he’s gained if he fails to roll his New Hampshire win into what is a very winnable state. But Huckabee probably won’t contest Michigan as vigorously as McCain and Romney, since it is not a must-win state for him. (South Carolina is).
That means that McCain and Romney are likely to stage what amounts to an elimination contest in Michigan next week. The victor will then stand as the main non-Huckabee candidate left in the mix. Giuliani will be left clinging to a diminishing base of support in Florida.
It seems that Rudy Giuliani lost the G.O.P. nomination in New Hampshire—not last night, but two months ago.