Florida is where the national political ambitions of New York mayors go to die.
Rudy Giuliani will learn that lesson tonight if he finishes fourth — as could happen — in a Florida Republican presidential primary on which he has gambled his political future.
“We win in Florida, we’re going everywhere else,” the former New York mayor told crowds in the Sunshine state on the eve of a primary contest that polls say is now between Arizona Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. “Florida is going to lead the way.”
In fact, if Florida leads as expected, it will be showing “America’s mayor” the exit door from a race he misread by skipping early caucus and primary states to concentrate on Florida.
In fairness to Giuliani, if he loses he will not be the first New York City big shot to be humbled by Florida voters.
Thirsty-six years ago, New York Mayor John Lindsay, a recent convert from the Republican Party, launched his campaign for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination in Florida. He bet that the state where so many New Yorkers had retired would be fertile ground for the Big Apple among the Palm Trees campaign.
Lindsay announced his candidacy in Miami and ran a classic New York campaign, with lots of flash and big elbows. He dismissed his chief rival, Alabama Governor George Wallace, as a symbol of “repression, division, segregation.” And he was talked about as a serious contender. “Mr. Lindsay will be seeking support from the substantial Negro and Jewish populations in Florida,” wrote Frank Lynn in a December 25, 1971, story for The New York Times, which covered Lindsay’s Florida fight like a local story. “Many of these Floridians are transplanted New Yorkers who may look kindly on the home-town candidate.”
That was the hope of the Lindsay campaign, as it is today the hope of the Giuliani campaign. The fear was that the transplanted New Yorkers might have left the city to get away from politicians like John Lindsay.
The fear turned out to be correct.
Lindsay finished fifth in the March 14, 1972, Florida primary. Wallace got 75 of the state’s 81 delegates. The remainder went to former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who won the Miami area where Lindsay had focused so much of his campaign.
Lindsay straggled on to Wisconsin’s primary three weeks later and then quit the race. A year later, he would leave the mayor’s job rather than face a likely reelection campaign defeat.
Will Giuliani do any better than Lindsay?
On paper, yes. He could well finish third in Florida. At worst, he’s headed for no worse than a fourth-place finish.
But, of course, that’s in a five-way race — with McCain, Romney, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Texas Congressman Ron Paul.Lindsay was in an 11-way race and while he trailed Wallace, Humphrey, Maine Senator Ed Muskie and Washington Senator Henry Jackson, the New York Mayor actually beat the eventual Democratic nominee, George McGovern.
How about percentages? Lindsay won 7 percent of the Florida Democratic primary vote in 1972.
Could Giuliani do that badly? The latest polls have him battling with Huckabee for third place, with each candidate pulling around 13 percent.
So perhaps Rudy Giuliani will run better than the last New York mayor who tried to use Florida as the launching pad for a presidential bid.
That may be the last spin left for America’s mayor after tonight: Giuliani Squeaks Past John Lindsay.