Six months ago I would never have believed that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would still be the Republican front-runner just 50 days before the Iowa caucuses. So it's possible I'll continue my streak of being wrong about Republican primary dynamics, and be shocked when he wins the nomination. But the race is about to get interesting.
Many Democrats have been frustrated by the media's excessive focus on Hillary Clinton's so-called stumble in Philadelphia two weeks ago. While the pundits parsed her answers and hailed the tightening in polls of Democratic voters, Giuliani has gotten a free ride. Until the last few days, when coverage of Giuliani friend Bernard Kerik's indictment on corruption charges began to probe a little bit more deeply, and look at what it might say about Giuliani.
Giuliani's endorsement of Kerik for Homeland Security chief has always raised questions of character and judgment, given Kerik's well-documented penchant for bullying, cutting ethical corners and his ties to organized crime figures. Increasingly, though, the question of what Giuliani knew about Kerik's troubles, and when he knew it, is getting more attention. The New York Times has shown that the former New York mayor simply isn't telling the truth when he says he wasn't informed about Kerik's lapses; in fact investigations commissioner Edward Kuriansky briefed Giuliani and his top aides more than once on concerns about Kerik's financial and friendship connections to Interstate Industrial, a construction firm believed to have organized crime ties, even before Kerik was appointed police commissioner.
And on Sunday the New York Daily News noted that Kerik's first pretrial hearing is scheduled for Jan. 16, at the heart of primary season. "It boggles the mind," a New York Republican consultant told the paper. "Even a cursory look at the indictment suggests a pattern over many, many years. They should have known more."
But Giuliani has only, belatedly, apologized for one thing in relation to Kerik: failing to adequately "vet" his friend before recommending him for the Homeland Security post. And amazingly, he still takes credit, and gives Kerik some of the glory, for the drop in crime while the two pals ran New York. "There were mistakes made with Bernie Kerik," Giuliani told the Associated Press. "But what's the ultimate result for the people of New York City? The ultimate result for the people of New York City was a 74 percent reduction in shootings, a 60 percent reduction in crime ... What Bernie Kerik did wrong did not implicate what the results were for the public."
That's classic Rudy, stubborn and arrogant. Apparently some people like that in a candidate. But he's also had a rather stubborn and arrogant approach to the primary season, and there are increasing questions about whether that will work. Running as "America's mayor," with a lead in national polls, Giuliani always brazenly insisted he could mostly bypass early small states like Iowa and New Hampshire and count on winning states like Florida, California and New York in the suddenly front-loaded primaries. There was, and is, no proof that's a potential winning strategy, but Giuliani seems to be sticking to it. Now Mitt Romney's attention to Iowa and New Hampshire is paying off in the polls, as the former Massachusetts governor widens his lead over Giuliani in those two key states and moves ahead in South Carolina, too.
Can Giuliani really lose those crucial early states but then cruise on to victory Feb. 5 (with a Jan. 16 pretrial hearing for Bernie Kerik thrown in for good measure)? Can he survive as well as Hillary Clinton as the heat gets turned up in the primary kitchen? The national media is already gearing up for a Subway Series, the Clinton-Giuliani brawl we were denied when he dropped out of the Senate race in 2000, but it's a little early yet to anoint either candidate -- especially Giuliani. He's only endured a sliver of the scrutiny Clinton has over her two decades in national politics. We'll see how he handles the attention in the weeks to come.