Rudy Giuliani isn't John McCain, and his New Hampshire posturing isn't a strategy
Let's assume Rudy Giuliani is seriously looking to run for president. And let's put aside, at least for a moment, the big reason that any Giuliani campaign is a nonstarter, which is his history of cultural liberalism.
Instead, let's look at the specific victory scenario Rudy is now sketching out, one in which he ignores Iowa and uses New Hampshire as a springboard to the GOP nomination. It's the same route, he told Poltico's Maggie Haberman during a trip to the first-in-the-nation state late last week, that John McCain took in 2008.
"I think John had exactly the right strategy," Giuliani said.
There's a problem, though: This wasn't really McCain's strategy in '08. Yes, it's true that McCain's campaign ended up downplaying expectations for their candidate in Iowa, that McCain himself skipped the August 2007 Ames straw poll, and that he ultimately expended far more time and energy in New Hampshire. But this doesn't mean he skipped Iowa. In fact, McCain's Iowa showing ended up being critical to his national success.
Here it's important to remember that McCain began the '08 cycle as the G.O.P.'s "next in line" candidate. He'd won seven states in his contentious primary battle with George W. Bush in 2000 and then—after spending the first 18 months or so of Bush's presidency as a persistent critic of the White House—abruptly reinvented himself as a public friend and ally of the president.
Clearly, McCain did this with an eye on '08: The G.O.P. nomination would be open and he already enjoyed near universal name recognition and considerable popularity with independents. In other words, there was good reason for the Republican establishment to rally around McCain, but only if he could get them to forgive and forget his bitter fight against them in 2000. This was the McCain who literally embraced Bush in the summer of 2004 and threw himself into the Bush-Cheney re-election effort.
McCain fully expected to run as the establishment's candidate in '08. As such, he planned a full-scale effort to win the Iowa caucuses, building an organization in the state and spending considerable time there in the first half of '07. But as he did this, his campaign nearly collapsed, with his high-profile support for immigration reform—a position that put him in line with Bush—costing him dearly with the party's activist base. The decline in McCain's poll numbers reinforced the establishment's skepticism, drying up his fund-raising and leading to a staff exodus. By July, the McCain campaign's obituary was being written.
It was at this point that McCain, by necessity, decided to concentrate his resources on New Hampshire, the state where he'd scored his career-defining victory, a 19-point rout of Bush, back in 2000. But he didn't fully walk away from Iowa; he simply dialed back expectations, returning throughout the summer and fall for debates, candidate cattle calls, television interviews, and endorsement events.
The importance of this became clear at the very end of the year, when the G.O.P.'s key opinion-influencers decided to give McCain a second look, mainly because their other options (Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee and Giuliani) had all proven themselves deficient in some way. After receiving an endorsement from the fiercely conservative (Manchester) Union Leader, McCain's New Hampshire numbers surged, and the national press took note. Suddenly, McCain was viable again, and new cash and new endorsements began pouring in.
This is where Iowa came in. The race for first place there had become a contest between Romney and Huckabee. If he could prevail, Romney was likely to roll to the nomination, since he was also leading in New Hampshire. But a loss in Iowa—especially a lopsided one—threatened to deflate Romney's bubble and make him vulnerable in New Hampshire, where McCain was now running second and where Huckabee would be a nonfactor. (Religious conservatives from the South have never fared well in New Hampshire, where the G.O.P. electorate tends to be more libertarian in its leanings.)
Iowa now offered a golden opportunity for McCain. By maintaining a presence in the state instead of writing it off completely, he'd sustained good will with caucus-goers. And with his national prospects brightening, some of them were now willing to support him. No one expected McCain to come close to winning the state, but a stronger-than-expected showing could give him real momentum heading into New Hampshire, especially if it was coupled with a Romney loss. So McCain confidently returned to Iowa on the eve of the caucuses, attracting a big crowd and significant press attention.
Caucus night couldn't have gone better for McCain. The big story was Huckabee's win, and Romney's loss. The second-biggest story was McCain's showing—13 percent of the vote, essentially tied for third place with Thompson. McCain looked strong, Romney looked weak, and when they squared off in New Hampshire five days later, the Arizonan secured a five-point win.
Now, consider Giuliani's situation. Unlike McCain, who kept 12 staffers in place in Iowa even after his campaign's near-death experience in '07, Rudy has no presence in Iowa. There is also little residual affection for him in New Hampshire. And there's no obvious rationale for the party's national establishment to give Rudy a fresh look later this year, even if the other candidates seem deficient. He is a culturally liberal New Yorker with one dreadful national campaign under his belt; McCain, on the other hand, passed most of the conservative establishment's litmus tests and had already shown, in his 2000 campaign, an ability to attract significant national support.
What's important to understand is that McCain's back-from-the-dead story was powered by several forces. He didn't simply camp out in New Hampshire, win over that state's G.O.P. electorate, and then win the nomination. He maintained an Iowa presence, benefited from New Hampshire's residual affection for him (a product of 2000), carefully positioned himself to attract Republican establishment support, and then got lucky. That was the McCain '08 strategy. Rudy’s plan for 2012 involves no realistic strategy at all.