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Underestimating Giuliani

At the end of every year, The Washington Post's David Broder writes what has to be a horribly painful column cataloging every journalistic mistake he's aware of having made over the previous 12 months. Broder is a fine journalist, but he must have some latent masochistic tendency: You will never catch me so systematically raking myself over the coals for misjudgments. Nevertheless, from time to time, I have been known to take myself to task.

The question today is whether I have seriously underestimated Rudy Giuliani's chances of winning the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. I have long joked that I would win the Tour de France -- without benefit of steroids -- before the former New York City mayor would win the Republican nomination. Putting aside your mental image of a portly Charlie Cook in black spandex, am I wrong?

There is little need to go through the logic that was employed to relegate Giuliani's campaign to the dustbin of history. But it took into account his stands on social and cultural issues such as abortion, guns, and gay rights, his checkered personal life, and his promotion of Bernard Kerik, first to be New York City's police commissioner and later as a prospective secretary of Homeland Security.

Then there was the question of whether a former big-city, Northeastern mayor is still capable of winning a major party's presidential nomination -- and a conservative party's to boot. If all that weren't enough to sink Giuliani, his exceedingly brief appearances in Iowa and New Hampshire haven't seemed to give either state the attention it expects and that most political analysts would say it deserves, given its importance in the process.

Simply put, if Giuliani were to win the GOP nomination, it would mean that virtually everything I've ever learned about Republican nomination politics is wrong, or has suddenly changed.

My current favorite Web site, which is the home page on my computer, is causing me to rethink my dismissal of Giuliani. That site, pollster.com, is a collaboration of Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) who started politicalarithmetik.blogspot.com, and Mark Blumenthal, a Democratic pollster better known as Mystery Pollster. Blumenthal's site, mysterypollster.com, demystifies the profession and provides great answers and explanations about all things polling.

One of the great features of pollster.com is a graph on which Franklin plots responses to a particular poll question over time, such as President Bush's or Congress's approval ratings for the past several years, or trial heats for the Republican and Democratic nominations. In plotting each presidential campaign poll, Franklin also computes the trend average, resulting in a graph that shows the support level for a candidate -- along with those of rivals -- in every major national survey since late 2004.

Since October, Giuliani's trend line has been rising at about a 45-degree angle. Sen. John McCain's has been dropping at a roughly comparable angle. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's line showed a gradual increase until September, then leveled off. And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's trend line has shown a gradual but consistent increase dating back to late 2004. In state-level polling, Giuliani is in first place -- or tied for first -- almost everywhere.

And Giuliani's first-quarter fundraising is impressive. He didn't match Romney's blistering pace, but he also didn't spend as much. Indeed, Giuliani's campaign displayed the frugality that was also seen in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's operation; both had lower "burn rates" than many of their rivals.

Republican professionals and independent analysts, virtually all of whom shared my early skepticism about Giuliani's chances, are now saying that although they still don't expect him to win the GOP nod, they aren't so sure. Clearly, there are no quantifiable signs that Giuliani's support is waning.

Don't get me wrong: I still think that Giuliani can't get nominated. I'm no longer certain of it, though. And I'm thinking about getting into better shape -- I hear the Tour de France is a pretty long race.

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