Falling polls lead Giuliani to retool his campaign plans

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Over the summer and fall, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was riding high.

Following a strategy that downplayed the early-voting states, his battle plan was to focus on Florida -- that virtual suburb of New York. Winning the Sunshine State on Jan. 29 would blunt the victories of his more conservative rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, and act as a slingshot, hurling him toward victory on Feb. 5, when 22 states hold primaries.

Oh, for the best-laid plans.

Now, with his lead shrinking in national polls, and even in Florida, according to some measures, Giuliani is retooling.


After seeing no results from expensive TV advertising on Boston stations, whose markets include the populous southern part of New Hampshire, he has scaled back. He is spending more time in New Hampshire and waging what some call a “stealth campaign” in Iowa. He is also doing something that is potentially far more challenging for him: He is recasting his belligerent persona. Maybe, he seems to have realized, it’s not enough to be the toughest guy on the block.

Last weekend in Tampa, in a speech that drew heavily on the optimism of Republican icon Ronald Reagan, Giuliani unveiled his sunnier side.

He spoke for 35 minutes, a departure from his usual town-hall style format or quick photo ops in diners. His staff billed the speech as an important event, ensuring major news coverage in Florida’s largest media market, but Giuliani did not unveil new policy prescriptions, or announce new endorsements.

Instead, he focused on America’s can-do spirit, sanding off his tough edges, recasting himself as an optimist.

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who never misses an opportunity to rail against illegal immigration, joked at a recent presidential debate that his rivals, especially Giuliani, were trying to “out-Tancredo Tancredo.” Now, as Giuliani is pushing his more hopeful, morning-in-America side, he seems to be trying to out-Reagan Ronald Reagan.

“As I travel across our land,” Giuliani told the 200 or so people who’d gathered in a ballroom of the Tampa Convention Center, “I’ve begun to hear a murmur that America somehow has lost the ability to achieve great goals. Some good people have come to believe that our country is on the wrong track. . . . They’re worried that this may be the time where the next generation of Americans doesn’t do as well as the last generation. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

His wife, Judith, who does not normally appear with him on the trail, sat below the stage, gazing at him. At the end of his speech, they both shook hands with supporters along the rope line.

The reasons for Giuliani’s dip in the polls vary.

Partly, he has suffered a run of unwelcome publicity. His business deals have come under intense scrutiny. His former police commissioner, Bernard B. Kerik, whom he had recommended to President Bush as head of Homeland Security, was indicted on conspiracy and tax fraud charges. There were stories about how, as mayor, he provided taxpayer-funded security for his wife, who was then his mistress. In speeches, the thrice-married Giuliani tells his crowds right away that he is a flawed man: “If you’re looking for perfection, you’re not going to find it. Not in me, not in any candidate.”

But Giuliani, an abortion-rights supporter, also has suffered from a surge in support for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an antiabortion former Southern Baptist preacher, who is well ahead of the pack in Iowa, and climbing everywhere else.

Important newspaper endorsements in Iowa and New England have given Sen. John McCain of Arizona a lift. And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney continues to enjoy a substantial lead in New Hampshire, despite Giuliani’s deluge of mailed literature and his ads, one of which had him talking about how the Iranian hostages were released within an hour of Reagan taking office.

“If you had asked me a couple months ago, I would have said Giuliani has a good shot at overtaking Romney,” said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “He was sitting at 20% and hadn’t run an ad. Finally, he goes up on the air in mid-November, and if anything, he’s drifted downward.”

The Giuliani campaign, however, denies anything is amiss.

“The bottom line is we always knew this race would get competitive the closer we get to votes being cast,” said Giuliani’s national spokeswoman, Maria Comella. “At the end of the day, his lead has been steady and consistent.”

She pointed to a USA Today/Gallup poll, released Monday showing Giuliani with an 11-point lead over Huckabee, his nearest competitor. But a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released Wednesday showed Giuliani and Romney tied at 20% among Republicans nationwide.

Because of his multistate strategy, keeping up with Giuliani on the campaign trail is not an easy task. Last week he was in Santa Monica greeting patrons at the upscale burger joint, the Counter. He appeared next in Florida and New Hampshire. On Wednesday he was slated to make three stops in Missouri. His only scheduled interaction with reporters this week, apart from a meeting with the editorial board of the tiny New Hampshire newspaper Foster’s Daily Democrat, is in Kansas City.

Comella calls it “maximizing his time.”

“His greatest challenge was always the fact that the mayor resonates so well in so many states,” she said. “How do we harness our resources and his time and energy to campaign and compete in as many states as possible?”

That seems to be Giuliani’s challenge right now.

He has spent scant time in Iowa, where voters are used to being personally courted by candidates.

Between Jan. 1 and Dec. 9, Giuliani spent 17 days in the state, while Huckabee spent 47 days and Romney more than two months there, according to the Iowa Democratic Party, which tallies candidate visits.

“It’s a joke,” said Carrie Giddins, the party’s spokeswoman. “He hasn’t spent the time or made the effort in Iowa to be a serious contender in the Iowa caucuses. He has done the bare minimum to not have a bad story written about him.”

But his campaign staff is urgently reaching out to Iowans. Caucus-training sessions to mobilize voters have been held across the state. The candidate has filled household mailboxes with at least a dozen different glossy mailers. Volunteers have made more than 200,000 phone calls to potential voters.

In New Hampshire meanwhile, Giuliani told workers at Goss International in Durham on Monday that he planned to spend a lot of time in the state between now and the Jan. 8 primary. While that may be true, Scala said, the perception exists that hasn’t thrown himself into New Hampshire wholeheartedly.

“Mitt Romney has covered the state like a blanket all year, and McCain has been working the state as well. While Giuliani doesn’t turn off voters -- that’s been Fred Thompson’s job -- he is somewhere in the middle,” Scala said. “And he’s having trouble breaking through.”

It’s easy to see why Giuliani is pinning his hopes on Florida, a place teeming with ex-New Yorkers like Maureen Valella, 41, who brought her 10-year-old son, Mickey, to see him in Tampa on Saturday. Valella and her husband, who own a limousine company, moved to Florida from New York in early 2001. She loves the former mayor, she said, because of what he did for the city before Sept. 11.

“New York City was so dangerous, even the good areas,” she said. “As soon as he became mayor, there was a police officer on every corner just to make a statement. The city was disgusting, and Rudy fixed it.”

Times staff writer Seema Mehta in Des Moines contributed to this report.