Rudy’s Unkillable Dream

In 1980, former Texas Governor John Connally spent $11 million—the equivalent of $29 million in today’s money—to run for the Republican presidential nomination. He won no primaries, earned just one delegate and spent the rest of his life clawing his way out of debt.

This made him a punch line, the standard by which disastrous White House bids are measured, and no one—least of all Connally himself—ever talked about him running for president again.

Which is why it’s somewhat baffling that Rudy Giuliani, who threw $57 million last year at a crash-and-burn presidential bid that also netted just one delegate, actually seems to have his eyes on a follow-up campaign in 2012.

That’s the takeaway, at least, from the news that the former mayor is poised to challenge appointed Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in next year’s election. The more you consider his possible motives for doing so, the clearer it seems that Rudy is still afflicted with Potomac Fever.

It’s true that the Senate might not be as miserable for Mr. Giuliani as most assume it would be. He wouldn’t be an ordinary freshman: He’d get plenty of television time, and the G.O.P. leadership would probably enjoy showcasing him.

But he has the temperament of an executive, not a legislator, and at 65 years old, he hardly has the time to build up enough seniority to wield any real power in the Senate. Hence the widespread assumption that he must see the Senate not as an end in itself, but as a means to something bigger: the White House.

This is where the Connally parallel comes in. History suggests that the opportunity to run again for the presidency four years after losing is reserved for those who exceeded expectations their first time out—not for the John Connallys of politics.

In 2008, Rudy earned just 3 percent in the Iowa caucuses, 8 percent in New Hampshire, 2 percent in South Carolina and 15 percent in Florida (where he ultimately exerted the most effort—and won his lone delegate). Then he dropped out. And all of this, mind you, came after he’d spent virtually all of 2007 as the national front-runner. So it’s tough to see what he’d be building on heading into 2012.

Mr. Giuliani’s liabilities as a G.O.P. candidate were obvious. There was his well-documented history of cultural liberalism—on abortion, gay rights, immigration and gun control—which he tried, unsuccessfully, to mask. And then there was his style—bland, uninspiring, even soporific. This was a product both of the defensive crouch that his cultural views left him in during most debates and interviews and of his campaign’s fear that the Angry Rudy who polarized New York would rear his head and turn off the G.O.P. electorate. It all added up to one long, unconvincing apology tour.

You’d expect this same basic dynamic to prevail in ’12, and it probably would. If anything, the G.O.P. electorate will be even more conservative on cultural issues and, presumably, more resistant to someone with his history. Plus, his awful ’08 showing stamps him as a loser nationally, whatever happens in the Senate race.

Despite all that, he’d have a little more room to maneuver in the run-up to the election. The press might not fixate as much on his old cultural liberalism. Immigration should be far less prominent an issue. And with Barack Obama in the White House, Republicans may be more receptive to electability arguments.

It’s worth remembering that—contrary to the narrative that emerged from ’08—Rudy didn’t set out to ignore all of the early contests in ’08 and to stake his fate on the late January Florida primary. Actually, he was poised in the fall of ’07 to make a serious push in New Hampshire, where a Republican of his unusual ideological makeup can still succeed. A win there would have made him far more credible in Florida (and elsewhere), and then who knows?

If he runs and wins against Kirsten Gillibrand next year, this is what Mr. Giuliani’s boosters will be saying. To anyone who’s listening.

  Rudy’s Unkillable Dream