A bad day for Rudy Giuliani

A new poll shows him losing his national lead, and "flu-like symptoms" put him in the hospital.

By Tim Grieve

Published December 20, 2007 12:10PM (EST)

It seems like just yesterday that we were wondering why voters haven't paid more attention to the troubles befalling Rudy Giuliani. As it turns out, maybe they have.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of Republicans nationwide shows that Giuliani "has lost his national lead in the Republican field after a flurry of negative publicity about his personal and business activities." Giuliani led the pack by double digits six weeks ago; now he's tied with Mitt Romney, three percentage points ahead of Mike Huckabee and six points up over John McCain.

Now, national polls are pretty worthless as indicators of how people in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina or Florida might vote -- unless, of course, you've been staking some of your claim on the notion that you and you alone can appeal to voters in all 50 states. As the Washington Post explained back in July, when "America's Mayor" led McCain and Fred Thompson -- remember him? -- by 20 points nationwide, Giuliani's front-runner status was being "fueled by a broad-based perception that he is the most electable GOP candidate." If Giuliani suddenly seems vulnerable -- if it seems, as the WSJ/NBC poll suggests, that he'll have a hard time nationally among Republicans and against Democrats -- then that prong of his appeal fades away. And if, in fact, voters are beginning to focus more on the economy than on Iraq, Giuliani's focus on national security via 9/11 may cease to be the pull that it once was.

Oh, yes, and then there's the financing arrangements for the security detail, the questions about his relationship with Bernie Kerik, the concerns about the business dealings he won't disclose. It would be enough to sink a mere mortal. And indeed, something -- the campaign describes it as "flu-like symptoms" -- had Team Giuliani turning around its airplane Wednesday night so that the candidate could check himself into a hospital in St. Louis for an overnight stay and "routine tests."

Giuliani's communications director issued a statement this morning saying that the candidate was heading home and that, after conducting some "precautionary tests, the doctors found nothing of concern at this time."

Of course, they may not have seen the poll results.

But when we spoke Wednesday night with Giuliani spokeswoman Maria Comella, she offered a political diagnosis that was pretty similar to the medical one. We asked her about Giuliani's struggles in the early-voting states -- particularly, New Hampshire, where McCain seems to be rising as Giuliani falls -- and she said that the campaign is still well prepared to go the distance. "We've always stated that our strategy has been a national strategy ... and that this race is going to get tight toward the end," she said.

But the new WSJ/NBC poll paints the picture of a race that isn't "tight" as much as it is "wide open." No Republican candidate has the support of more than 20 percent of Republican voters nationwide right now, and the Journal sees signs that the "mood of the electorate" is swinging around rapidly. Among the Republican candidates, Democratic pollster Peter Hart says, "There is no hierarchy. There is no establishment candidate. The Republican voters are searching."

That's good news for most everyone in the race -- and maybe for somebody who isn't in yet -- but it's not what you want to hear if you were the guy who was supposed to be the front-runner. Just before he was hospitalized Wednesday, that guy was reduced to arguing that the primary season is really a 29-inning baseball game, and that he can afford to take a hammering in the first seven innings.

No, really.

"A baseball game, you've got to play nine innings, and whoever gets the most runs at the end of nine innings wins," Giuliani explained in Kansas City, which is, for the record, in neither New Hampshire nor Iowa. "So here, you've got to play in 29 primaries. Nobody's going to win all of them. That's for sure ... So, our strategy from the beginning has been, eight-, nine-inning game. And as soon as we realized that California was going to be a Feb. 5 primary, we started campaigning in California, and putting a political organization in California. As soon as we realized that Illinois was going to be, we did the same thing in Illinois. Missouri, same thing in Missouri. That's the strategy. I call it a proportionate strategy. It means that you recognize the reality: you're not going to win all of them, you've got to win most of them, and most of them are coming on Feb. 5, so you'd better not ignore Feb. 5."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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