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« Edwards Out | Blog Home Page | Lewis Pulls Fast One In Retiring »

A Giuliani Post-Mortem

John Edwards' unexpected announcement that he will drop out of the race has stolen what was supposed to be Rudy Giuliani's day. The former New York Mayor, who ignored early contests in hopes of relying on his national name recognition to sweep to a February 5 win, saw his strategy collapse thanks to a distant third-place finish in Florida last night. He is widely expected to head to California today, drop out of the race and back John McCain for the GOP nomination.

Giuliani's announcement, as Ben Smith and David Paul Kuhn write, could mark the end of September 11 as a major factor in American politics. Joe Biden famously mocked Giuliani's sentence structure as "a noun and a verb and 9/11," and the failure of that message led directly to Giuliani's demise.

That's not to say the campaign was doomed from the start: Giuliani brought a solid message of competent, even exceptional management to the race. But he played those messages up too late, ignoring early warning signs and relying on a broken strategy.

Strategists and future candidates can take important lessons from Giuliani's failed campaign: First, and most importantly, a campaign needs oxygen. Giuliani, who spent the plurality of his campaign working the Sunshine State and ignoring Iowa and New Hampshire, led in polls until just after the kick-off caucus and primary. After a week of media attention on winners Mike Huckabee and John McCain, and on second-place finisher Mitt Romney, Giuliani's numbers collapsed as voters read about other candidates non-stop.

Second, Giuliani failed to take a risk. The poet Terence argued that fortune favors the bold. In presidential politics, too, playing defense gets you nowhere. The only way to win is to fight for it, tooth and nail, in the earliest contests.

Giuliani and Romney, throughout 2007, were akin to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the Democratic side: All four were seen as 800-pound gorillas, and all four did not want to engage the other on unfamiliar territory, worried that a loss would be seen as a crushing blow. The difference: Clinton and Obama both competed in Iowa and New Hampshire, splitting the vote and emerging to avoid each other, again, on February 5. Giuliani virtually ceded Iowa and New Hampshire to Romney (giving Huckabee and McCain an opening), betting on facing him successfully in Florida and later.

But when Giuliani's main rival became the equally well-known McCain, who had benefited from a month of good press, that strategy collapsed. Previous candidates from New York City have had a hard time being elected governor of the state, much less being elected President. The next person who tries (attention, Mr. Bloomberg) needs to keep in mind an important lesson: You're a celebrity in New York City. In Iowa and New Hampshire, and continuing through other early primary states, you have to beg and plead for a vote just like everyone else.

Finally, many have argued that Giuliani was simply outside the GOP mainstream, and that the positions he took would have killed him in the end. That's probably accurate, given the attitude with which he addressed controversial stands on gay rights, abortion and gun control. Had Giuliani instead come out aggressively pushing back, insisting that his positions were mischaracterized or that his insistence on conservative judges would make up the difference, he might have found more success. Letting rivals pigeon-hole him as a liberal with three weddings under his belt was too much.

A campaign can't survive without oxygen, future presidential consultants and managers would do well to note, and Giuliani's strategy of skipping early contests was the first sign of the campaign's impending doom. As Romney, Clinton and Obama discovered, even a loss can keep you in the news and at the front of the pack. If Giuliani had competed and won in Iowa and New Hampshire, he would have run away with the nomination. Had he competed and lost, he would have at least been able to finish ahead of Ron Paul and Fred Thompson, and he could have built momentum instead of hoping to stay afloat long enough to survive. As he drops out of the race, Giuliani trails even Paul in delegates accumulated.