Tampa, Florida–"I hate pandering… have all my life," Rudy Giuliani once told Newsmax. "It's one of the worst characteristics that politicians have–pandering to people…There's a dishonesty in that that really offends me."
That was in 2006. This year, the former mayor of New York City is trying to win an election. With his national lead eroded and his presidential candidacy on the brink, Giuliani has staked everything on winning today's Florida primary. In the process, he has developed a strange new appreciation of the space program and the perils of the homeowner's insurance market.
"We're going to get to Mars before anyone else gets there," Giuliani boasted at a rally on Monday by the Orlando Sanford International Airport. "And we're going to reestablish our space program and eliminate that gap, so we can get our people up to the space station ourselves. That's something I learned about here in Florida, and I am committed to doing it."
Beyond supporting an industry that is an important part of the state's economy, Giuliani's main gambit to win votes and influence people in the Sunshine State has been getting behind something called the National Catastrophic Fund. Under this proposal, the federal government would help in the event of a major natural disaster, which would spread risk and thus allow insurers to offer more affordable homeowner's polices to residents of hurricane-prone Florida.
"The idea is to be there with a backstop that will allow a private market to work so that people who have risk will pay more but at least they'll have insurance that [isn't] excessive," Giuliani explained last week.
Contrary to Giuliani's assertion, the private market in Florida is functioning quite efficiently, because it is sending homeowners the signal that it'll cost them if they choose to live in an area in which there is a high risk of a hurricane. To artificially lower insurance rates would only encourage more people to move to the state, meaning more costly storms in the future. Giuliani's response to critics is that the federal government ends up stepping in anyway, so being proactive is actually the more fiscally conservative thing to do.
At every campaign stop "America's Mayor" has been touting the fact that he is the only Republican in the race that supports the National Catastrophic Fund, and he took out a television ad educating voters on his position. During last Thursday's debate, when Giuliani had the opportunity to ask a question to one of his rivals, the former prosecutor grilled former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on his lack of enthusiasm for the giveaway.
Yet Giuliani has received very little in return for taking such a strong stand on the fund and the desperate need for a publicly funded Mars expedition. His poll numbers have continued to dwindle in the state, and Florida's GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, a leading proponent of the idea, ended up endorsing Sen. John McCain, who said no to the fund.
To be sure, not all economic pandering is created equal. While Giuliani doesn't have much to show for his efforts, Mitt Romney's latest incarnation as a born-again John Edwards has paid enormous dividends.
After defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he had spent tens of millions of dollars, Romney's chances of capturing the Republican nomination seemed slim. But in Michigan, he won by promising to save the auto industry and fight for every job, and he has continued to echo populist themes in Florida. At campaign stops here, Romney talks about the "economic squeeze" and "help[ing] middle class families make ends meet."
After spending most of last year running away from his Massachusetts health care plan, Romney now fully embraces it, defending the various mandates that are part of the program. He has been promising that as president, he'll work to get every American insured.
Not only is Romney pushing the idea of universal health care, but according to a report in the Politico, his campaign has attempted to woo senior citizen voters in Florida with robo calls attacking the frontrunner McCain for voting against "the AARP-backed Medicare prescription drug program."
That multi-trillion-dollar entitlement program has served as a monument to President Bush's betrayal of limited government principles, and the AARP has been the biggest obstacle to achieving entitlement reform because of its use of scare tactics directed at its elderly members. The idea that Romney, who is trying to portray himself as an economic conservative, would employ similar scare tactics to assail a rival for opposing the boondoggle is staggering. Yet many conservatives have concluded that Romney is their last hope of stopping McCain, whom they dislike on immigration, campaign-finance reform, and other issues. So they are giving the former Massachusetts governor a free pass on his dash to the left on economic issues.
In the primaries so far, McCain himself has avoided the type of economic pandering that his rivals have engaged in, and it has been greeted with mixed results. He had a better-than-expected showing in Iowa despite his opposition to ethanol subsidies. And his refusal to endorse the idea of a catastrophic fund didn't cost him the endorsement of Gov. Crist. In the span of a few weeks, he improbably went from also-ran to the head of the GOP pack, both in Florida and nationally.
Which isn't to say he hasn't paid a price in the campaign.
"We went to Michigan, and we told them the truth," McCain recounted at a Tampa rally Monday night, referring to his acknowledgement that auto industry jobs leaving Detroit weren't coming back. He then joked, "They didn't like it much."