The lesson belongs to the man who was, as recently as Christmastime, the Republican frontrunner and inside favorite to be the next President of the United States. America's Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani. He had a bold strategy; he would skip the early contests, featuring small states, and bet everything on Florida. The Sunshine State's one of the famous Big 8, those eight states that hold over half the Electoral College, and their primary was a week before Soopa-Doopa Tuesday. The bump from that win would give him an edge when 24 states went to the polls, and that would carry him over the top.
He has to know this strategy's been tried before, and with the same effect. In 1988 the future Vice President, Tennessee Senator Al Gore, used the same strategy, forgoing Iowa, New Hampshire and all the early states while concentrating on the large group in the middle of the primary season. Unfortunately for him, Mike Dukakis already had the momentum on his side. In spite of doing as well as Dukakis, the Massachussetts Governor managed to win in all four corners of the country. Plus, Jesse Jackson did nearly as well as either of them, making a roughly even three-way split. With everything already leaning his way, Dukakis rode the wave all the way to the Democratic nomination while Gore faded in his rear view mirror.
Some may wonder when all this emphasis on the small early states began. It was always there, really. There's been a first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary since 1952, and until Bill Clinton in '92 nobody went to the White House without first winning the Granite State. Arguably, the first candate to make NH the cornerstone of his strategy was a former peanut farmer and one-term Georgia Governor named Jimmy Carter.
1976 was one hell of a year in American politics. It was the first election after Watergate and Nixon's resignation, and any Democrat should have been able to win the Presidency in a walk. The Republican incumbent was Jerry Ford, who had been appointed VP about a year before inheriting the big chair, and had never run a national campaign.
The big handicap for the Democrats was that their leading lights were out. Edmund Muskie, long-time Senator from Maine, had shot himself in the foot during the '72 campaign when he was the heir apparent. And, for some reason, the other biggest name, Hubert Humphry, stubbornly refused to run. No one knew at the time, but Humphrey was suffering from terminal cancer and was secretly taking experimental medications.
The biggest Democratic name after that was the sitting Governor of California, Jerry Brown. He was the son of Pat Brown, the man who kept Richard Nixon out of the California Governor's mansion in 1962. Good-looking, visionary, and dating Linda Ronstadt, the nomination was his for the asking. So he waited until he was asked.
Unfortunately for him, a large field of Dems didn't feel like waiting. The cleverest of them all, as it turned out, was Carter. He parked himself in New Hampshire a full year before the Primary. He talked to everybody who would listen to him. He covered the state like a blanket. By the time the election rolled around he had an enviable level of name recognition, coupled with a beaming smile and the plea to "trust me." Trust him, they did.
Brown stayed above the fray until a group of six states that all held their primaries on the same day; the prototype of the Super Tuesday we know today. But the Democrats didn't need Brown any more. Carter had a tsunami of momentum coming out of NH, and everybody was chasing him. On the big day, Carter took three of the six states. Brown got one, Arizona Senator Morris Udall took one, and I think Frank Church, Senator from North Dakota, got the last. Carter went to the '76 convention with more than enough delegates to clinch.
So now Rudy knows what Al and Jerry already figured out; you skip the early contests at your own peril. Who cares if they have .02 delegates each, and half of them won't be seated? They're in the news, and that's what builds momentum. On the other hand, last fall John McCain was dead in the water. His funding had dried up, he was cutting his campaign staff to the bone, and all the pundits were sticking forks in him. He was done, and everybody knew it.
Everybody but him. He hung in there, and spent a large portion of the little he had in ol' New Hampshire. He got traction where Rudy saw only ice and snow, and now their positions are reversed. Let the lesson be learned.