By Mike Taibbi, NBC News correspondent
Editor's note: Mike Taibbi filed this while on the road this week with Rudy Giuliani in Ft. Myers, Florida. His report airs tonight on the broadcast.
Rudy Giuliani was beaming, and with good reason. He'd just finished the second of six stops during a long day of his Florida bus tour, this one a town meeting in the megachurch centerpiece of the Shell Point senior citizens complex, and the place had been packed with people who sure sounded like supporters. One of them, an enthusiastic woman named Bonnie Raymo, sounded like she'd been briefed in detail on the 63-year-old former New York mayor's "late start" strategy of launching his campaign with a Florida win while his opponents spent their ammo in a circular firing squad before getting to Florida, none of them the clear leader and all of them weakened enough to cede the front page to a new lead story: Rudy!
"It seems like he's putting all his eggs in this basket, (but) he's trying everywhere," Bonnie said, "and it has been unpredictable for everyone. And, the polls are all wrong. I think he knows how to operate…and he's the one who's going to beat Hillary!"
At Shell Point, Giuliani hit every applause line and the crowd of nearly a thousand responded. He was for "staying on offense in the Islamist terrorists' war against us," and for stimulating the economy by making the Bush tax cuts permanent and by pushing for new cuts in the corporate and capital gains taxes. He'd been introduced at this and other stops by Steve Forbes, the "flat tax" Republican who'd sought the White House himself a couple of cycles ago, and now Giuliani was finding a moment in each appearance to wave a single sheet of paper in front of him. "A one page tax return," he said. There were cheers each time.
"These people give you your enthusiasm," he told me after the Shell Point appearance, sitting in his campaign bus. "They're terrifically excited. You've got to look at the states where you can look at the voters, you look at the polls and you say to yourself 'this is the place I can make the biggest impression.'" (Photo: Chris O'meara, Associated Press)
He concedes it's an unconventional strategy that may not work. "We'll see," he said several times in the days we spent with his campaign both in Florida and in New Hampshire before that state's primary. There'd been stories this past weekend that a dozen or so of his senior campaign staff are forgoing salaries for the month of January to husband dwindling resources. And he'd smiled, ruefully it seemed, when during an appearance at the El Ray Jesus Church in Cuban-American Miami the chorus had sung "I'm somewhere in the future… and I look much better than I do right now!" By the time he took a seat in that church his longtime double-digit lead in Florida had evaporated completely; he'd fallen into what was essentially a four-way tie and there was time to fall farthur before the January 29th winner-take-all primary.
"But you don't posit all the worst things that could happen," he told me, "and then say, 'are you done?' if they happen. I believe we're gonna win Florida and I think that'll turn the whole thing around."
Maybe, but a lot of trends would have to break in a different direction for that to happen. This is a candidate who as recently as early December was still seen by many as not just the favorite on the Republican side but as the inevitable nominee. This was Rudy, after all; everybody knows him, the thinking went (and, as Giuliani reminded reporters during a fundraising visit to London last summer, he was one of the "four or five" best known Americans on the planet); and everyone knows what he's known for.
Turns out that in a wide-open race, high name recognition hasn't been enough. They may have known him in Iowa but they didn't vote for him… a weak fourth. In New Hampshire he spent millions of his war chest, then pulled his television ads, then skipped to Florida having bagged barely 20,00 votes, another weak fourth. No numbers, no buzz, in a state where logic suggested he should have had some traction just for being, well, Rudy.
It could be that the would-be Giuliani juggernaut was never really a juggernaut at all… that he was just the best-known name brand until the others caught up. It could also be that his legitimate fame and iconic status were badly damaged by both his limited participation in the early part of the nomination process and by a series of negative press reports about his personal and business lives, and about his connection to and support for his indicted friend Bernie Kerik, the former New York Police Commissioner Giuliani touted to President Bush for the job of Homeland Security chief.
In Florida I suggested that if he became a viable candidate again after success in that state's primary, all those reports about all those controversial issues would be given an explosive new life. I mentioned the Swift Boat Veterans' efforts to derail the John Kerry campaign. "That stuff doesn't matter," he told me. "People don't vote on things like that. People vote on who's going to be the best to lead the country. Who's going to be the best to deal with the economy, who's going to be the best to deal with Islamic terrorism. What you're talking about happens to every candidate… you just have to rise above it."
But "those things" do matter to some voters we talked to. At a later event Monday afternoon, Giuliani was giving his stump speech to a good-sized crowd at a waterside shopping mall in Punta Gorda. One man, a transplanted New Yorker named Bob Clarke, listened intently but kept his hands in his pockets after each of the candidate's applause lines.
He liked Giuliani, Clarke explained. "I think he's got a plan for America. But if he gets more successful I think there'll be some things coming out about his background…whether they be true or false. He's got a very public track record… and I know that divorce and other things that are in his background will come into play with some voters." Clarke added, "I'm a registered Republican and I'd like to stay there if I can. I'm still looking for a candidate."
Another woman in the crowd, looking at Giuliani almost adoringly, told me she'd been waiting for more than two hours for his campaign bus to arrive. "I've always wanted to see him," she said, snapping off another photo. "For years!" So, I asked, I guess you're voting for him?
She looked right at me, her brow furrowed and her eyes revealing an inner conversation. "I think so," she said, a lingering question in her answer, and turned her camera to the podium again.