Giuliani's Huckabee Strategy

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Eric Thayer / Getty

Republican presidential candidate and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani

For most of the last six months, the Giuliani high command has spent considerable time trying to decide how to deploy its most precious assets — its money, its best organizers and the candidate himself — in the early primary states. It has been a complex — and shifting — calculation for a Republican who got in relatively late, comes from a blue city in a blue state, tilts to the center on abortion and homosexuality and has a name that ends with a vowel. And so, Team Giuliani has already passed through several stages on the path to nirvana.

Thanks to Mike Huckabee, Giuliani's campaign now stands at another pivotal point.

But first, a little history. It was clear, in early summer, that the campaign had decided to only do drop-bys in Iowa and New Hampshire and concentrate instead on Florida and the February 5 primary states. The campaign was trying to make a virtue of necessity: Giuliani so lagged Mitt Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire that he simply decided to fight on more favorable ground, where his name recognition and more natural constituencies would help him a few weeks later. There was some soundness to this theory, since the states holding primaries on February 5 include such potentially Rudy-rich turf as New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and California.

Then, sometime in early August, the campaign pivoted. Realizing that Romney was poised to perhaps win most of the first four or five states, and thus create the appearance of inevitability before the race even reached February 5, Giuliani's team rebooted and sent the candidate to Iowa and New Hampshire. He has since spent a markedly larger percentage of his time in those two states, particularly New Hampshire. Giuliani was not really expecting to beat Romney in the first two states, only slow him down, take the air of inevitability out of him, and — who knows? — maybe pull off a surprise early win. Even as they launched that push, however, aides sought to lower expectations: Giuliani's top aide Mike DuHaime said his operation was "momentum-proof," meaning it could contend with any other candidate who emerged unbeaten from the early states.

Now comes the apparent Huckabee surge in Iowa, which threatens to upend Romney's long-established lead there more than any Giuliani tactic. If it holds, Romney may not come roaring out of Iowa as the unblemished front-runner, which could create circumstances that allow another — Giuliani, McCain, maybe Ron Paul, or possibly all three — to take a piece out of Romney in New Hampshire. And the multi-candidate muddle that may emerge from the first 10 days in January would benefit the person who leads in polls in the states that follow. As things stand now, that is usually Giuliani.

The new pivot point is this: now that Huckabee seems likely to slow down Romney in Iowa, does Team Giuliani now shift its own pre-Florida efforts from Iowa to New Hampshire? Why bet any money or time on Iowa now that someone else is doing your work for you — and you could wind up in fourth place even if you play your cards well? My guess is that this calculation is already being embraced by some at Giuliani headquarters. Last week, with their man's polls sagging, Giuliani's team finally spent some of its cash on ads in New Hampshire. And Giuliani spent two days there over the weekend, touring the Granite State by bus. On Saturday, Giuliani said he hoped to pull even with — or pass — Romney in New Hampshire. "We think we can catch him," he told the Washington Post, "and get ahead of him." Over the weekend, he also took the fight directly to Romney, criticizing him over crime after a heinous double murder in Washington State. The accused killer was released from prison by a judge appointed by Romney.

Republicans are not accustomed to — and do not have much experience with — primary calendars that cause nothing but confusion. And Giuliani has many rivers to cross before chaos becomes his friend. But Huckabee's surge in Iowa could mean that Giuliani won't need to be "momentum-proof." If no candidate has any clear momentum by mid-January, Giuliani could be poised to benefit more than even his team might have imagined.