The surest signs of a campaign in trouble are the hokey stories about confounding expectations. You could hear a bunch of those stories on the campaign trail with Rudy Giuliani this week. His pal Jon Voight recalled how it looked like he had no chance to get cast in Midnight Cowboy in 1968. His campaign chairman Bill McCollum recalled how it looked like the Republicans had no chance to take back Congress in 1994. And the candidate told a few confounding-expectations stories himself about beating the Mafia and taming New York: I've been doing the impossible all my life!"
So this is how it ends for America's Mayor, although he never quite said so in his Florida concession speech last night. He never said he's still a candidate for President either, and he probably would have mentioned that if he were. "I'm proud that we chose to remain positive," he told a sparse crowd of Orlando supporters after finishing a distant third behind John McCain and Mitt Romney. His use of the past tense made his status pretty clear. He said he's still heading to California tomorrow "I've got my ticket!" But it's not a ticket to compete.
Rudy has certainly confounded expectations, plummeting from front-runner to also-ran in just a few weeks. And if the plunge wasn't totally unexpected a twice-divorced, pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-gay-rights New Yorker had to be a tough sell in a Republican primary the cause certainly was. Who would have thought the man who declared war on New York's criminals, squeegee men, street vendors, taxi drivers, graffiti artists, jaywalkers and even purveyors of "incivility" in other words, New Yorkers was going to shy away from a fight?
In his non-drop-out drop-out speech, Rudy referred to his combative nature: "Like most Americans, I love competition. I don't back down from a principled fight." But he stayed out of Iowa, New Hampshire (at least once he fell behind there), Wyoming, Michigan and South Carolina, holding out for a fight he thought he could win in Florida, trying to win a national election on local battlefields of his own choosing. He listened to political operatives who valued big-state delegates more than small-state momentum, and now it looks like he's going to get neither. The humorist Dave Barry suggested that Rudy might be trying to copy the strategy of the Miami Dolphins by losing so many primaries, but at least the Fins won one game this year. "I don't want to hate on his strategy, but I don't think you can blow off all those states and expect people to forget about that," says Zeke Romero, a 20-year-old Florida International University student who came to a Giuliani rally on campus Monday night. "Why did he do that?"
Yes, why did he do that? "There will be time to assess that after today," Voight said on Rudy's campaign plane. "Maybe it should be assessed." Or as one Giuliani aide mused with a fatalistic sigh: "They'll be asking that question in political science classes for years to come." As he campaigned on Tuesday at a couple of Florida delis and thanked his volunteers at a couple of his campaign offices he didn't visit any polling stations his reaction to why-the-kooky-one-state-strategy questions was oddly muted. "My message for today is go vote, so the strategy will be correct," he said with a wan smile.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Rudy's collapse was the candidate himself. The rap on Rudy was always that he was a successful mayor but a nasty man; the critics never understood that his nastiness helped make him a successful mayor. He never spent much time worrying whether reporters or interest groups or The People loved him. ("If people like my personality, thank you," he fumed to a room full of reporters the first time I saw him in action. "If you don't, I really don't care.") He wanted a city that worked, and he pursued that goal with a take-no-prisoners combativeness that sometimes bordered on mania, calling out his enemies and sometimes his allies as "jerky" and "idiotic" and "silly" and "very, very jerky" and "very, very idiotic."
But on the trail, he seemed so serene, so resigned, so Zen. He played up his 9/11 heroism, and portrayed himself an international ass-kicker, but he never really looked like he wanted to throttle anyone. He didn't sound vengeful or bitter or power-starved; he talked about "returning power to you!" Who would have thought Rudy would be the gentleman reminding voters that he's run a positive campaign, declaring that he's "sick and tired of all the name-calling"?
It was hard to watch this Prozac version of Rudy on the trail without wondering if his heart was really in this race. He was like this when he kinda-sorta-almost ran for Senate against Hillary Clinton in 2000; he actually blew off his get-to-know-you tour among the GOP elites of upstate New York to attend the home opener at Yankee Stadium. He was still saying Tuesday that Florida could be a "gate-opener," building momentum for Feb. 5, but he seemed to sense that the gate was slamming shut. And he didn't seem to mind that much. He seemed to be enjoying himself, which wasn't usually the case in New York. "We've been campaigning in Florida so long, I really feel like I'm one of you," he said Monday night.
Maybe that's why he put all his eggs in the Florida basket: He likes it here. It was 71 degrees and sunny this morning at his meet-and-greet at a Sunny Isles Beach deli. He likes to say he banked on Florida because of electoral realities and limited resources; he thought it was a big state he could win "given my positions, given the pros and cons." But at the Orange County Republican dinner Saturday night, Rudy made a telling quip: "People pay a lot of money to spend the month of Florida in January." When the political science classes ponder the remarkable collapse of the Giuliani '08 campaign, they might come to think of it as a $40 million Florida vacation.