Rudy On The Ropes
With former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani facing a do-or-die test in the Jan. 29 Republican primary in Florida, his most formidable opponent is wheeling out the heavy Jewish artillery.
This week Sen. Joe Lieberman — now an independent, but the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 2000 and a contender for the party’s nomination in 2004 — was scheduled for a one-man campaign blitz through Michigan, South Carolina and Florida on behalf of a Republican: Sen. John McCain.
Lieberman’s efforts in Florida, in particular, could prove significant as McCain, the big GOP winner in last week’s New Hampshire primary, tries to deal a knockout punch to a GOP rival who is going after the same “security hawk” vote, which includes many Jews.
“Jews take Joe Lieberman seriously, and especially Jewish campaign contributors, who look to him for leadership,” said Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg.
Lieberman’s heksher could prove a potent weapon in McCain’s last-minute campaign to defeat Giuliani in Florida, once considered his surest electoral bet, Ginsberg said.
The Lieberman campaign effort also revived speculation about a McCain-Lieberman ticket under the GOP banner.
But former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s decisive victory over McCain in the Michigan primary on Tuesday could play into Giuliani’s strategy of counting on a GOP muddle in early primaries — and then pulling off a big victory in Florida.
Romney’s win was “great news for Rudy,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “It keeps his hopes alive and gives his unusual strategy a chance to work.”
Shadowing the mounting Giuliani-McCain contest in the Sunshine State is growing unease even among Republican-leaning Jewish voters about the rise of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister who has made his Evangelical faith the centerpiece of his campaign.
Huckabee ran third in Michigan and is pushing hard in South Carolina, where the evangelical vote could prove decisive.
“I don’t hear so much about McCain and Giuliani; what I hear from my people is concern about Huckabee,” said Rabbi Leonid Feldman of Temple Beth- El of West Palm Beach. “Many people here see him as a fundamentalist preacher who is very charismatic but very subtle. When I talk to people in my congregation, I hear that they are very nervous.”
Balking On Rudy Support
Several observers in Florida describe a chaotic, fast-changing climate in which predictions are even riskier than usual. Giuliani, with a strong base of New York retirees, has worked the state relentlessly, and his supporters are convinced it will pay off in Florida.
“What analysts aren’t picking up is that Rudy’s connection to voters here is very visceral,” said a top Jewish supporter. “That is especially true for Jewish voters. They feel a connection to him because of geography, because of the strong support he’s always had for Israel, because of his stands on terrorism.”
But other observers report signs of a shift toward McCain.
Rabbi Feldman was listed as a contact for reporters by the Giuliani campaign. But when asked if he supported the former mayor’s candidacy, he balked.
“I don’t really know,” he said. “It’s a very confusing situation at this point.”
Feldman said that some of his congregants “feel a real connection to Giuliani and are grateful for what he did in New York. But others say they know him — and don’t want him as a president.”
He said the Florida effort by Lieberman — a Jewish political groundbreaker and an iconic figure to older Jews in particular — could sway many.
“Joe Lieberman is very respected and loved here,” he said “If he really pushes, it could have a real impact for McCain; there could be a lot of changes in a week.”
Many Jews, he said, felt McCain was “better qualified” but held back from his campaign because of the perception he couldn’t win.
But Lieberman’s presence in the state “could change everything,” Feldman said.
McCain campaigners say the Connecticut senator was sent to Michigan to help draw in independents and Democrats — who could vote in the GOP primary — and to Florida, where both Jews and “national security hawks” are prime targets.
And Lieberman could play a role in South Carolina. McCain forces hope the Orthodox Jewish lawmaker, who ran well among evangelical voters in 2000, will help their candidate top Huckabee in what has become a critical primary for both.
In Florida, polls paint an ever-murkier picture. According to a Quinnipiac survey released on Monday, Giuliani, McCain, Huckabee and Romney are in a statistical dead heat in Florida, with McCain enjoying a small lead. In contrast, Sen. Hillary Clinton is 21 points ahead of Sen. Barack Obama on the Democratic side.
Other Jewish Republicans say the sharpening Florida contest is mostly about which Republican has the best chance of holding on to the White House in November in the face of an angry, volatile electorate.
“Electability is overshadowing all other factors,” said Jeffrey Ballabon, a leading Jewish conservative activist who has not picked a Republican favorite. “There is a certain fair weather factor; that perception may change a dozen times as the primaries produce surprises.”
‘More Wide Open Than Ever’
Ballabon declined to criticize Giuliani’s strategy of taking a bye on the first primaries and focusing all his efforts on Florida — “the people running Rudy’s campaign are smart and savvy” — but said that it was a “calculated risk” that might not pay off if McCain’s momentum and his rise in the national polls changes perceptions of electability.
Joe Lieberman’s endorsement of McCain will be “very important” in Florida, he said.
For now, he said, the race among Jewish Republicans seems to be shifting toward McCain.
“For months, all I heard on the street was Giuliani; now it’s McCain,” he said.
Tuesday’s results in Michigan, where Romney survived his own fight for survival, further muddy the picture on the GOP side.
Giuliani supporters say that Romney, by neutralizing some of McCain’s post-New Hampshire momentum, sets the stage for Giuliani to emerge from the pack with a big victory in Florida.
But Lee Cowen, a Jewish Republican political consultant and Romney supporter, said he believes Jewish Republicans and swing voters in Florida are edging away from Giuliani into the “undecided” column — and that his candidate, buoyed by his Michigan win, could be the beneficiary.
“And don’t forget that Romney is the one candidate with the resources to run a truly national campaign on Feb. 5,” he said, referring to the former governor’s personal fortune and willingness to invest in his campaign.
Colby College political scientist L. Sandy Maisel said dramatic shifts in voter concerns could also make Romney a stronger contender in Florida.
Suddenly, he said, a badly faltering economy and public fears of a deep recession are changing some electoral priorities – a shift that he said propelled Romney to victory in hard-pressed Michigan.
That may play a surprisingly big role in Florida, as well, he said.
“What the Romney win means is that he will get another look by mainline economic conservatives, who will be looking for a businessman,” he said. “Giuliani has nothing to say about the economy – unless you spell it ‘9-11.’ McCain has been mostly silent on it.”
The sudden anxiety about the economy — polls show the issue has vaulted to the top of voters’ concerns — could be another huge wild card in Florida and the Super-Duper Tuesday states a week later.
“It’s more wide open than ever,” said a leading Jewish Republican activist. “I know less about what’s likely to happen in Florida today than I did a week ago.”