Look on Fred Thompson, Rudy, and Despair!

012108 kornacki web Look on Fred Thompson, Rudy, and Despair!It’s true that Rudy Giuliani hasn’t seriously contested any of the first five primary and caucus states (at least not since he dropped $2 million on television ads in New Hampshire) and that he has long touted Florida, which will vote on January 29, as his campaign’s first true test.

Still, it’s noteworthy just how awfully Rudy has fared in the lead-off contests. Last night, he finished with 2 percent of the vote in South Carolina, a state where he’d been running near the top of polls just a few months ago. And yesterday afternoon, he won just 1,910 votes in Nevada—good for four percent.

His best showing to date was in New Hampshire, where he nearly broke double-digits (9 percent). Between Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina he has managed to win just 60,212 votes—or 15,000 fewer than he received when he defeated Ron Lauder in the 1989 Republican mayoral primary. By contrast, Ron Paul—whom Giuliani has verbally battered in an effort to impress the G.O.P. base—has received 106,387 votes so far.

For now, Giuliani is in contention in Florida. But the likely damage from barely registering in the early states cannot be overstated. Months ago, Giuliani was the runaway leader in Florida, in the big February 5 states and in national polls. Those advantages have all melted away, with John McCain quickly occupying turf originally claimed by Giuliani.

And the notion that Giuliani can now just jump-start his campaign in Florida looks even more dubious after last night, when Fred Thompson—who had been treating South Carolina the way Giuliani has been treating Florida—finished a very distant third in the Palmetto State. By all measures, Thompson waged a more vigorous and aggressive campaign in South Carolina. It was the kind of effort that could have produced a victory, if only he’d shown any life in the earlier contests. But too many voters had tuned him out and written him off, and the best he could do was to secure 16 percent and to edge out Mitt Romney for third place. Giuliani could be destined for a similarly grim fate in Florida.

It’s worth pointing out once more, contrary to how a revisionist strain picked up in some media reports, that this is not the strategy Giuliani and his team originally drew up. Back when John McCain seemed headed for oblivion, the Rudy people targeted New Hampshire, believing that a win or strong showing there would provide Giuliani with credibility that would preserve his standing in later states and national polls. It was a good calculation, and it’s why they spent $2 million there just a few months ago. But it coincided with McCain’s reemergence, so Giuliani never found traction in New Hampshire and then quickly retreated to Florida. That may go down as the moment his campaign ended.