Whatever you think about former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani — the candidate, the campaign, the controversies — his celebrity is powerful. Love him or hate him, he is a political superstar.
And as he clomps through campaign stop after campaign stop along the Interstate 4 corridor — the populous region from Tampa/St. Petersburg in the west, through Orlando, and to Daytona Beach in the east — he is besieged with cheers, gawkers, requests for photographs and autographs.
In an interview with ABC News, Giuliani said that he's adjusted to life in the spotlight.
"You know, that part's been going on for awhile, so you get used to it," he said.
Giuliani is in Florida this week, trying to eke out a victory in that state, in his high-stakes gamble to become the Republican presidential nominee.
Worried that his moderate social views would turn off conservatives in early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina, Giuliani rejected the traditional path to the presidency and is now betting it all on the Sunshine State. If he wins Tuesday, he will vault to the front of the pack. If he loses, it's tough to see much justification for his campaign to continue.
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'We Need to Win in Florida'
The campaign strategy was a bold call, and if it works, Giuliani will be vaulted to the front of the pack going into Super Tuesday one week later. If it doesn't work, then he may spend the rest of the campaign waking up in the city that doesn't sleep.
After all, he has been in Florida for almost 60 days, he says.
Giuliani once led polls nationally and in Florida by double digits, but recently stories about his much-praised leadership on 9/11 were replaced by headlines about the corruption indictment of his former police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, a man he recommended to become head of homeland security, and questions about billing records for security details while he went out to visit his then-mistress, now third wife, Judith Giuliani.
In an interview with ABC News in November, Giuliani said he had "made a mistake" by not vetting his former police commissioner. In response to the questions about the billing records, Giuliani said in a Republican debate that he wasn't involved in how his security was billed when he was the mayor.
And while his competitors duked it out, fought over issues and won early primaries, Giuliani was often left out of the conversation. In Florida he's now in a four-man scrum with John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.
The risky campaign strategy might not seem unusual for a man known for taking chances.
"I think it was the strategy that works for us," Giuliani told ABC News. "Of course in the long run, you know the answer to this at the end, not when you're going through it."
Some of Giuliani's senior staff members have foregone salaries in January as the campaign has put all its money into winning Florida. When asked whether he has the resources to compete on Feb. 5, Giuliani said "winning Florida is very important and then we'll think about the rest of it once we win Florida. The reality is, we need to win in Florida and we're going to work really hard to get one."
'Midnight Cowboy' in the Sunshine State
His wife, Judith Giuliani, is on the trip too, keeping generally a modest profile — perhaps a response to some of the negative press she received after the then-mayor quite publicly left his second wife for her.
Giuliani said it's "much more fun" to campaign on the road with his wife.
"I think it's a team effort and she's terrific with the crowds and she's great in giving me advice about how to express things and do things," he said, laughing. "Sometimes she'll tell me to make sure that you don't talk too long. Tighten it up a little."
Realizing the stakes, Giuliani is now on the stump doing what he's tried to avoid thus far: attacking his opponents, even McCain, a close friend.
"I supported the Bush tax cuts," he said at a campaign event. "John McCain sided with the Democrats and voted against the Bush tax cuts."
In addition to policy talk, there is quirkiness about Giuliani and his campaign, an emotionalism embodied a bit on this Florida swing by the presence of "Midnight Cowboy" Jon Voight.
"I just feel so deeply about this," Voight said, his voice quivering, nearly breaking down, as he introduced Giuliani at a campaign stop. "And I know that we need Rudy Giuliani now."
As he introduced Giuliani, the actor said the former mayor was the answer to his prayers after 9/11. "Please don't let this one go," he told the crowd. "Don't let this thing go."
"I spent some time with Jon Voight all day yesterday and the day before," Giuliani said, adding that the talk wasn't all politics. "[I] got some inside information on some of my favorite movies. Like 'The Champ,' which I thought was an excellent movie."
No Longer Setting the Pace
There's a little-boy quality to the former mayor that he acknowledges and indulges, making, for instance, an unscheduled stop at the Daytona International Speedway and expressing his displeasure when he wasn't allowed to drive in a pace car.
"I wanna ride the pace car," he said. "Will you let me ride a pace car? Do I need a license for that? … We're all little boys, don't ya know that?"
Giuliani had to settle for a trip around the track in his campaign bus — driving the pace car would have to wait.
The pace car enters the racetrack in front of all the other cars, and no one can pass it. That used to be where Giuliani was in his presidential race, but these days he's returned to the rest of the pack.
Critics say the problem with Giuliani's campaign is the belief that he could run the campaign his way — his detractors call it petulance, his fans call it determination, he calls it leadership.
"We're going back, between now and the primary, we're going back and they are gonna let me drive one of those cars," he said. "I can do it. … Believe me."
Giuliani is determined, which is not to say he doesn't adapt. With a shaky economy, he's de-emphasizing his signature issue — the war on terror — and pushing his bona fides as a fiscal conservative.
"The issues here in Florida are important issues about who can do the best job of lowering taxes, what's the best way to stimulate the economy," he said.
Wherever Giuliani goes, Floridians want their picture taken with him and they want his autograph, not because of his tax-cut proposal but because he's world-famous Rudy, only one name needed.
They are his fans … but will they be his voters?
Tuesday night Giuliani returned to New York to raise money, which would be direly needed if he wins in Florida. But that's a big "if." Giuliani more than anyone else knows that it's a gamble.