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Preacher may save Rudy

Though Rudy Giuliani has, until recently, represented the secular wing of the Republican Party, if he is to be saved, salvation will come at the hand of a Baptist preacher.

Frankly, Giuliani has disappointed me, threatening to call into question my skills as a prognosticator. Eleven months ago, when pundits and Republican operatives alike dismissed him as a candidate who could not win the GOP nomination, I argued here that he was a legitimate front-runner — that his consistent lead in the polls should not be dismissed, and that his character narrative, etched in voters’ minds by Sept. 11, may well prove more powerful than his positions on abortion and gay rights.

Soon others joined in labeling him a front-runner, but since then he has done almost everything wrong — running the worst primary campaign of the cycle.

Despite having nursed his presidential ambitions for years, he emerged woefully unprepared for the obvious questions. His position on abortion may not have been dispositive, but his inability to actually articulate that position could well have been.

When asked about abortion at the first GOP debate in May, Giuliani mystified his audience with his inept handling of basic questions that any Republican candidate should have known were coming. Giuliani would be “OK” if the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, and he would be “OK” if the court upheld the right to choose. What? He claimed to hate abortion but also to respect the right “to make a different choice.”

Inadequate preparation and foolish answers were not his only sin. Giuliani also embraced a loser’s strategy — deciding to skip Iowa and New Hampshire.

Those who have adopted such an approach in the past have been quickly consigned to the dustbin of history. As I have noted before, 13 of the last 14 major-party nominees won either Iowa, New Hampshire or both.

The significance of Iowa and New Hampshire is neither astrological nor sentimental. Victories there provide winners with the two V’s: visibility and viability.

Giuliani, his advisers maintained, does not need visibility. True, but losing the early contests guarantees that someone else surfs the wave of positive publicity the press lavishes on winners. Moreover, the winner will wear the mantle of viability, while many will continue to speculate that the former New York mayor strays too far from the Republican consensus to carry the party’s standard in a general election.

Most damning, this strategic failure constituted a needless risk. Most polls in the first half of 2007 showed Giuliani first or second in Iowa and New Hampshire. Had he stayed to fight he could have won, or at least fared well enough to gain something real going into the later states.

Despite all the unforced errors, Rudy Giuliani may still win the nomination, but if he does, he will have been saved by Arkansas preacher Mike Huckabee — a thought that probably rankles the former New York mayor.

A Huckabee win in Iowa, now a distinct possibility, would put an abrupt end to Mitt Romney’s rise. The former Massachusetts governor could still eke out a first-place showing in New Hampshire, but a narrow victory for a neighbor would lack the breakthrough character required to catapult him into national contention.

That muddled result, or even wins in both early states for the Arkansan, provides Giuliani his only real shot to win with his late breaking strategy. Huckabee is the only major GOP candidate weak enough to be beaten by a winless Giuliani on Feb. 5.

Of course, a surging Huckabee could still take Giuliani out, giving Democrats the best opponent we could hope for.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.