Rudy’s Rope-a-Dope Scheme

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Is Rudy Giuliani running for governor or not? With Governor Paterson looking increasingly ineffective in his job, Giuliani is back on the attack, making the sorts of clamorous policy declarations that have him sounding an awful lot like a candidate. Yet he isn’t a candidate, and won’t even say if he’s seriously considering a run. Nobody has ever doubted Giuliani’s need for attention, but some Republican insiders say that there’s a strategy behind the coy indecisiveness. He has to lull the Democrats into thinking he’s not going to run, so they don’t dump Paterson and put Andrew Cuomo up instead, who would be a lot harder to beat. In the polls, Giuliani leads Paterson by 27 points but trails Cuomo by 14—not an insurmountable margin but a portent of a grueling battle.

Right now, the most serious likely GOP candidate is Rick Lazio (who was Giuliani’s rival a decade ago for the U.S. Senate nomination, too). The former congressman, who left politics for banking after a loss to Hillary Clinton, presents Paterson and Democrats with a perhaps manageable threat. The thinking in Giuliani’s camp is that the specter of Lazio will only strengthen Paterson’s hand. Then, once it’s too late to pick Cuomo instead, Giuliani will pounce. “It’s the rope-a-dope strategy. From Giuliani’s point of view, it makes all the sense in the world,” says a source close to him.

There are other factors to Giuliani’s indecision, of course: fear that he couldn’t maneuver in Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s hidebound culture, memories of a disastrous presidential bid, and the burden of his campaign debt.

The ploy has its risks, and critics in the Giuliani camp. For one, as his disastrous third-place finish in last year’s Florida primary showed, you can’t always backload a campaign. “It’s the same idiot strategy he had running for president,” says a Giuliani source. And the more time he’s pretending not to run, the harder it will be to raise money and establish a campaign operation.

The other danger, of course, is that Lazio won’t play along. In 1999, when Giuliani decided he wanted to run for Senate, he had to shove Lazio aside. It took a public entreaty from then-Governor Pataki for Lazio to stand down. Giuliani allies say they’re confident that Lazio would cooperate. “He’s a nice guy, but he ain’t going anywhere,” says a Senate Republican. “I think he would step aside in a heartbeat.”

Except that Lazio is already picking up conservative support and has met with Pataki. “Rick’s getting more and more serious about running every day,” says Lazio adviser Kevin Fullington. “He’s not the kind of person who would give up his reservation at a nice restaurant just because a celebrity walked in.”

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Rudy’s Rope-a-Dope Scheme