With the Jan. 29 Florida primary on the horizon (and the end of the Bush administration on Jan. 20, 2009), we are examining all the major candidates for the presidency, with an emphasis on the issues they are discussing and their supporters in Tampa Bay. This week, the GOP frontrunner:
The April fundraiser for prostate cancer was held at one of New York's classiest joints (the Grill Room at the Four Seasons) and featured a testosterone-laden room of actors, pols and CEOs: Rush Limbaugh. Gen. Tommy Franks. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Leonard Riggio of Barnes & Noble. Joe Gannascoli, famous as the gay mobster Vito Spatafore in The Sopranos.
But the star of the evening was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, standing alongside the man he once prosecuted as a U.S. attorney, junk-bonds dealer Michael Milken.
"A Night to Remember," hosted by Cigar Aficionado publisher Marvin R. Shanken, raised $1.2 million to find a cure. But for Giuliani, the money raised at a cocktail party before the main shindig was just as important.
Shanken, whose slick publication almost single-handedly created the cigar boom of the 1990s, is a Giuliani fan. The mayor, in return, likes stogies. Shanken made sure the room was filled by inviting the cream of the crop of the world's cigar producers, and Giulani's campaign finance report ended up dotted with many industry-recognizable names, including Carlos Fuente of Arturo Fuente, Mike Chiusano of Bradenton's Cusano Cigars and Cuesta-Rey's Eric Newman (who maxed out to the mayor at $2,300 but also gave $500 to Obama).
"Rudy Giuliani is a great leader," Newman said this month from his Ybor City office. "He's also a great cigar smoker. So we met him, and we heard him, and he sounded like ... someone who is firm in his convictions."
Newman continued: " I think cigar smokers are people of their own convictions. They are successful. They make their own path. They lead; they don't follow."
That may be great ad copy for Cigar Aficionado, but does it really apply to a presidential candidate? Or is a presidential candidate's cigar sometimes just a cigar?
As it turns out, Giuliani-as-cigar-smoker mirrors the appeal of Giuliani-as-president for many of his supporters and contributes to his status as front-runner in Republican polls. The man who became known as America's mayor on 9/11 now seeks to earn the nation's top job with his macho-but-sensitive agenda: tough on terrorists, tough on crime; moderate on social issues such as abortion and civil rights for gays.
Giuliani is a moderate in a party that, for the past 27 years, has almost always chosen its most conservative leaders. For GOP super-voters (those who cast ballots in each and every election), Giuliani would appear to be too liberal on abortion (he is pro-choice) and gays (he supports equality through domestic partnerships but draws the line at using the term "gay marriage").
For Adam Goodman, a Tampa political media consultant who advises Giuliani and worked in some of his past campaigns, it is exactly Giuliani's moderation that appeals to Florida, the country's most important swing state over the past two elections.
Goodman says Giuliani's popular image as a take-charge leader is what sticks with the vast majority of voters, not whether he is out of step with his own Catholic Church on abortion.
Giuliani has worked hard to sell his nuanced message to conservatives and moderates alike in Florida, making appearances at more than a dozen speeches or fund-raising events since the start of the year, including a speech in front of 600 people at St. Petersburg High School in April. He has received more than $822,000 in campaign checks from Floridians in the first three months of the year. That is the third-highest total of all the major candidates, behind only Hillary Clinton and GOP opponent Mitt Romney.
He has a large coterie of powerful supporters in Florida and Tampa Bay. Attorney General Bill McCollum is his honorary chairman. Many Pinellas politicians are on board, too: Sheriff Jim Coats; state Sen. Dennis Jones; County Commissioner John Morroni; Tax Collector Diane Nelson; and a quartet of mayors, Andy Steingold of Safety Harbor, Chris Arbutine of Belleair Bluffs, Oldsmar's Jim Ronecker and Beverly Billiris of Tarpon Springs.
Atop that elected firepower, Giuliani benefits from the support of Pinellas Republican Party Chairman Tony DiMatteo and Vice Chairman Neil Brickfield. Both men are native New Yorkers.
And that points out another Giuliani advantage in Florida: the number of New Yorkers who have relocated to this state and identify with their former mayor's chutzpah.
Giuliani, in fact, counts New York's premier sports team in his corner. During spring training in March, Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner threw a fundraiser in his private suite at Legends Field in Tampa for Giuliani, soliciting checks not only from a number of local GOP money men but also from several team executives. Giuliani threw out the first pitch at the ballgame that day.
Housh Ghovaee, whose Clearwater engineering firm has been involved in dozens of large development projects in Pinellas, was in the crowd of about 40.
"I enjoyed his presence," Ghovaee said. "He seems a humble person. We need two things in [our next president]: having the strength to do whatever needs to be done and putting some love into the picture. Let the world know their impression of us is misunderstood."
Others at the event recall being struck by Giuliani's willingness to work the room for more than an hour, listening to concerns and issues, including a lengthy discussion about student loans with Paul Simino, CEO of OneSimpleLoan.com in Oldsmar.
His supporters see his accomplishments in turning around New York City as analogy for the help that the nation needs. Targeting even the smallest crimes with the zero-tolerance "broken windows" theory of crime-fighting echoes his pledge to hunt terrorists instead of pursuing larger wars.
"To his credit, he turned around a city that was in absolute decline and made it the greatest city in the world again and deserves the credit for it," said Bob Buckhorn, a conservative Democratic consultant in Tampa and a former city councilman. (Buckhorn is unaligned in the presidential race.)
Giuliani's platform includes 12 Commitments, a fiscal discipline promise that includes ending congressional earmarks, reducing the federal civilian government by 20 percent and proposing a constitutional amendment to give him the line-item veto.
He also pledges to introduce to Washington the same use of statistics that had NYC measuring all aspects of its government's performance to chart increasing or decreasing efficiency.
But even though he has a substantial fiscal agenda and resume, Giuliani's path to the presidency goes directly down West Street through the site of the former World Trade Centers.
"The mayor is probably etched in everyone's minds forever as the person who took charge on 9/11 and was the de facto president while our real president was hiding out in bunkers," Buckhorn said. "The real question is whether national security is the paramount issue [for voters in 2008]. If it is like it was in 2004, then he'll do well."