Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Can Rudy spin losses into a win?

With a mere 51 days remaining before the Iowa caucuses, we have entered a new phase in the election spin cycle.

During this sprint to Jan. 3, various candidates will try to finesse expectations about the impending horserace. Those who seem destined to do poorly in the earliest key contests - Iowa and New Hampshire - will seek to persuade the media, far in advance of the actual voting, that any stumbles out of the starting gate are no big deal. Indeed, regardless of the realities on the ground, the candidate's spinners will invoke variations of this time-honored cliche: "We feel very good about where we are."

And so it went yesterday with the spinners for Rudy Giuliani, during a conference call with reporters. They basically signaled that Rudy was going to lose both Iowa and New Hampshire to Mitt Romney - a somewhat startling admission, given the fact that no Republican during the presidential primary era has won the nomination without first winning at least one of those early states - but they hastened to add that, even if Rudy does lose to Romney, it would be no big deal anyway.

And, of course, we had these lines: "We feel extraordinarily good about where we are...we feel very good about where we are positioned right now...I think we feel good about where we're at in Iowa...We feel like we're in a pretty good place. We're comfortable about where we're at....So right now, I feel very good about where we are..."

Can a national frontrunner (Rudy leads the GOP field in the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, with 33 percent of likely primary voters) win the nomination even while losing the traditional gatekeeper states? The essence of the Rudy argument, from campaign manager Michael DuHaime, is that "there are multiple paths to victory," that Rudy can win the nomination by racking up delegates in the big states that vote on Jan. 29 (Florida) and Feb. 5 (notably New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois), even if he whiffs in the early-January voting in Iowa and New Hampshire.

DuHaime basically argued that because Rudy is so strong in these big states, and that because these big states are holding their contests so early in the calendar for the first time, there's little chance that a rival will get much momentum from winning Iowa and New Hampshire. He said that Rudy's advantage in these big states is "momentum-proof."

In his words, "We certainly recognize the ability for a candidate or candidates to get momentum or to be hurt by the early states. But we also recognize that this (primary season) is not the same as, say, 2000 or 1996 or '92 or '88 or '80."

We'll soon see whether this theory has any merit. It might not. The Rudy people are assuming that the enormous free publicity benefits of winning Iowa and New Hampshire will have no impact on the GOP voters in subsequent contests. Romney, who has outspent and out-organized Rudy in both those early states, also has the financial resources (personal and otherwise) to compete strongly with Rudy in the big states. Is it credible to assume that Rudy will remain "momentum-proof" if he scores lower than Romney and Mike Huckabee in Iowa (a very real possibility) and scores lower than Romney, John McCain, and Ron Paul in New Hampshire (also a real possibility)?

Two new polls show Romney widening his lead in New Hampshire. Not so coincidentally yesterday, the Rudy team's spin to lower the bar for Rudy in New Hampshire was truly creative. DuHaime said, "I mean, this is Governor Romney's backyard, and people should recognize that...If you live in New Hampshire, you know who Governor Romney is and you've seen him as (Massachusetts) governor, you've seen his campaigns for governor (in Boston TV ads)...So he should have an institutional advantage there." And as for Rudy, "this is his first political campaign in New Hampshire."

But are we really supposed to believe that, in terms of media exposure, Romney's four years as Massachusetts governor trump Rudy's eight years as "America's mayor" in the city that suffered 9/11?

And if we leave the Northeast and journey to the South, we see other potential flaws in Rudy's spin. Another key early GOP contest, on Jan. 19, is South Carolina. Rudy is by no means a lock on winning there, either. He is competing there with Romney (who is reportedly picking up religious conservative support), and Fred Thompson (a southern home boy who yesterday won the endorsement of the National Right to Life Committee, the largest anti-abortion group, which has grassroots clout in states such as South Carolina). Also, the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reports that the South is Rudy's weakest region. Is it plausible to think that Florida on Jan. 29 would rescue Rudy if he first loses Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina?

Actually, it might be worse than that. It's possible that the Michigan Republicans will vote on Jan. 15, and that too could be rough for Rudy. The Romney family has ties to Michigan - Mitt's dad was governor there - and John McCain has a track record in Michigan, having won the 2000 GOP primary. So I'll amend the question: Is it plausible that big-state GOP voters will still see Rudy as the most viable candidate if he starts the primary season with an 0-4 record? As GOP strategist Scott Reed, who is not affiliated with any candidate, reportedly remarked the other day, the Rudy team "can't just have a Florida strategy and lose four straight races before then."

One other caveat that potentially undercuts the Rudy spin: He has largely coasted thus far, benefiting from his universal name ID, but he will be increasingly attacked by his rivals as voting time draws near. For instance, we'll see whether Republican voters remain besotted by Rudy's alleged 9/11 leadership credentials, when they learn more about how Rudy turned a blind eye to his police chief's mob affiliations and championed the guy to become director of Homeland Security...the same guy who was tapped by President Bush to train the Iraqi police in 2003, only to return as a failure within three months.

I'll look at the latter episode in detail tomorrow. Although I assume that the Rudy team's spin would be, "We're comfortable where we are right now with Bernie Kerik."