Because I no longer make my living by covering media and politics full-time, I’ve been less engaged in the 2008 presidential campaign than in any I can remember. So when I got a chance to head north on Monday to catch a Rudy Giuliani event, I leapt. My editor at the Guardian, Richard Adams, provided me with a letter in case I needed to produce credentials. And we were off.
My traveling companion was Seth Gitell, an old friend who’s covering presidential politics for the New York Sun. Gitell is probably best known for his stint as Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s spokesman, but before that he covered politics for the Boston Phoenix. He and I covered the Republican and Democratic national conventions together for the Phoenix in 2000, probably the most fun I’ve ever had in the news business.
We arrived at Goss International in Durham, N.H., where Giuliani was scheduled to speak, ridiculously early. The only evidence that we’d come to the right place was a lone campaign worker who was planting Giuliani signs in the snow. So we headed over to a coffee house near the University of New Hampshire campus to kill some time.
When we got back, the second-floor function room, next to the company cafeteria, was beginning to fill with reporters. It was a decent-size media crowd — not exactly what you’d call a horde, but respectable, especially given the consensus that Giuliani, despite leading in the national polls for months, was starting to see it slip away.
The media were kept at a distance. Giuliani was scheduled to speak at 12:45 p.m., but he didn’t arrive until about 1:15. What appeared to be several hundred Goss employees had filled the room, leading to a quip or two about whether they’d be allowed to extend their lunch break so that Rudy wouldn’t be speaking to an empty room. There were also a few jokes among reporters about the irony of covering an event at a company that manufactures printing presses, not exactly a growth industry these days.
Finally, Giuliani walked out onto the stage, wearing a black suit, a white shirt and a red striped tie — no soft tones for the Mayor of America. He made a lame joke about ink from Goss presses rubbing off on his hands, and then — moving back and forth in front of a sign that said “Tested. Ready. Now.” — spoke for about five minutes. Giuliani offered some free-market boilerplate about taxes and government regulation and, of course, revisited his favorite theme, “the terrorists’ war against us.” After that, he took questions from the employees — certainly not from the press — for about a half-hour.
Giuliani cuts an impressive figure on stage. He has a knack for coming off as conversational and informal while still managing to speak in complete sentences. Compared to the perpetually stiff John Kerry or the perpetually tongue-tied George W. Bush, he comes off well indeed. The content of what he said, though, seemed tired even to me — and I was seeing him in person for the first time. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be one of the reporters traveling with Giuliani, like Brian Mooney of the Boston Globe, who wrote a blog item on the event but nothing for the print edition.
Illegal immigration? Give legal immigrants “tamper-proof photo ID” cards. Public education? A school choice plan that would “empower parents” and, in particular, “empower poor parents.” Health insurance? “We need a private competitive market with millions of people in it, then costs will come down.” Someone even asked him to tell everyone about what 9/11 was like, a pitch so fat that you might have thought the questioner was a plant.
“There’s no way I can describe how difficult it was to get through the day,” Giuliani began before describing, in some detail, how difficult it was to get through the day.
I don’t mean to be quite as dismissive as this sounds. Giuliani is a smart, serious candidate with proven leadership qualities and a whole lot of personal baggage. He’s as interesting a story as there is in this campaign. But these town-meeting-style gatherings, safe and innocuous, don’t exactly give people what they need to know before walking into the voting booth.
For reporters who were present, the Giuliani story of the day was very different from what the candidate was talking about in front of the Goss employees. From the beginning of the campaign, Giuliani has pursued an odd strategy of hoping to do just well enough to get by in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire while rolling to victory later, in big states like Florida, where voters are presumably more tolerant of a thrice-married moderate Republican. In pursuing this strategy, Giuliani has seemingly ignored the first rule of momentum: A lead in the national polls and in the big states tends to disappear overnight if you get creamed in Iowa and New Hampshire.
On Monday, the press was buzzing over news that Giuliani was cutting back on his advertising in New Hampshire. So a seeming throwaway line at the end of his talk — “I’ll be spending some of my Christmas holiday here in New Hampshire” — came across as at least somewhat significant. His New Hampshire campaign chairman, Wayne Semprini, reinforced that message afterwards, telling reporters, “Rudy Giuliani is not pulling out of New Hampshire.”
We milled around for a bit afterwards. Seth is a semi-regular on New England Cable News, and he did an interview with NECN’s Brad Puffer in which he said, “They [the Giuliani campaign] are still trying to have a foothold in New Hampshire and not abandon it. When you exclusively focus on a national campaign and don’t concentrate on Iowa and New Hampshire, then you may not get to have a national campaign.” (Seth’s piece for the Sun is here.)
David Saltonstall, a Massachusetts native and alumnus of the MetroWest Daily News who’s covering Giuliani for the New York Daily News, told me, “The news going into this news cycle is that Rudy’s withdrawing his ad dollars from New Hampshire.” Saltonstall saw Giuliani’s remarks as an attempt to have it both ways: “He’s walking kind of a tightrope with voters here, I think.”
All of this has precisely nothing to do with whether Giuliani would make a good president. Yet at this stage of the campaign, that’s what the media focus on — who’s up, who’s down, the polls, the fundraising. It’s not that the press never does substantive coverage (indeed, the Globe’s Mooney did a terrific profile of Giuliani in early November). It’s just that, late in the game, when ordinary voters finally start to tune in, the journalistic instinct is to cover the campaign as though it were a sporting event.
So let me indulge. Right now, on the Republican side, it looks as though Mitt Romney and John McCain have put themselves in the best position to win, assuming Mike Huckabee fades the way everyone thinks he will. Unless Giuliani can turn it around, he’ll be remembered as the winner of 2007 in an election that won’t be held until 2008. At least that’s what I wrote for the Guardian. (I gave Fred Thompson some props, too, so I may have been hallucinating at the time.)
Then again, who knows what will happen? It’s not as though anyone has actually voted yet.