Giuliani's primary goal: Florida

The state, and its new early vote, will be central to his campaign strategy.

Published May 22, 2007

Get ready to see a lot of Rudy Giuliani in Florida.

As Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday signed a bill making Florida one of the earliest presidential primary states, Giuliani was already gearing up to take full advantage. The former New York City mayor for weeks has been beefing up his Florida campaign team, having decided to make the Sunshine State a pivotal part of his strategy for winning the Republican presidential nomination.

In a compressed nominating schedule where some 20 states, including giants like New York and California, will vote on Feb. 5, the idea is that earlier elections in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina may not be quite so all-important. Momentum from Florida's Jan. 29 primary could slingshot a candidate to success a week later when most of the delegates are awarded.

"It's the No. 1 target, " Attorney General Bill McCollum, chairman of Giuliani's Florida campaign, said of the Sunshine State.

"He needs to win Florida to have the momentum going into Super Tuesday on the fifth. The other candidates probably feel the same way, but I believe he will put more emphasis on Florida than they will, " McCollum said. "He sees the big states, Texas, California, New York and Florida, as the key to the campaign."

Which explains the recent flurry of hiring and interviewing of political operatives by the Giuliani campaign in Florida. In addition to field organizers in central and northeast Florida, he hired former McCollum strategist Paul Seago as his executive director for Florida and Orlando-area operative Kathryn Staczek as his state director of field operations. More staffers are expected to be named soon.

A St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll earlier this month showed Giuliani leading the Republican field among Florida Republicans, but it's still an unpredictable contest. Giuliani had the support of 29 percent of Republicans polled, compared to 15 percent for McCain and 14 percent for Romney.

"Rudy's fortunes will be determined in some large measures by some of the most significant and largest states in the country. You have Florida, California and New York as a kind of nexus, " said Tampa media consultant Adam Goodman, a longtime Giuliani adviser. "If those three continue to pull strongly for Rudy, you start to look at electoral math and you start to question the viability of a number of campaigns."

Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime said any campaign could win the nomination if it fails to win the other early elections in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

"We're going to play very hard in all the early states, but Florida is no doubt the place where we're strongest, " DuHaime said. "It's the biggest state that is now pre-Feb. 5 so it makes it tremendously important."

John McCain's campaign manager, Terry Nelson, said McCain will start ramping up a Florida operation soon now that the Jan. 29 primary date is set.

"The Rudy argument is that Florida is a moderate state and therefore he should be able to successfully compete, " Nelson said of Giuliani, whose support for abortion rights and gay rights is potentially a big obstacle in Iowa and New Hampshire. "Our argument is that Florida voters are fundamentally conservative."

But while the McCain campaign has been building strong organizations in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, it suddenly appears to be lagging behind Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in its Florida grass roots operation.

McCain has one consultant working in South Florida and one staffer covering the whole state. Meanwhile, the pool of experienced Florida Republican operatives is dwindling as other campaigns fill their organizations far earlier than in any previous presidential election cycle.

"At every Republican party or club meeting, someone always stands up in the back of the room and says, 'I'm with the Romney campaign.' And that matters in campaigns. Giuliani's starting to do the same thing, " said David Johnson, a veteran Republican strategist unaffiliated with any presidential campaign. "Organizationally, the McCain campaign has to catch up in Florida."

Romney, who early on planned to compete aggressively in an October Republican straw poll ultimately nixed by Crist, for months has had more than a dozen staffers based in Florida.

"We've been focused here since day one. Giuliani is known by every Republican. Romney is not as well known, but the reality is the more people who get to know Mitt Romney, the more people think Romney should be president, " said Mandy Fletcher, who leads Romney's Florida campaign. "The fact that Giuliani is stepping up means he recognizes the momentum Romney is gaining here in Florida."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8241.