WASHINGTON — These are tough times for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
He's still the leading Republican presidential candidate in national polls, but only by two percentage points over former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, according to five national polls this month averaged by RealClearPolitics.com.
And in early-voting states, Giuliani's sinking fast. He's a distant third in Iowa, a closer third in New Hampshire and has sunk to fourth in South Carolina, according to recent polls. With Iowa's first-to-vote caucuses on Jan. 3 and New Hampshire's primary five days later, Giuliani's campaign appears to be sliding.
"There are certainly black clouds in the numbers for him," said Brad Coker, the managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research.
The recent reduction in violence in Iraq may be hurting Giuliani. Toughness against terrorism is the cornerstone of his campaign. But Americans believe that President Bush's Iraq troop-surge plan is working and that's lowering their concerns about terrorism, Coker said.
"Iraq and terrorism are down in importance," Coker said. "That hurts Giuliani."
Giuliani campaign officials say there's no problem. They say the ascensions of Huckabee nationally and of Arizona Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire are part of the natural ebb and flow of presidential campaigns.
They remain confident in their unconventional strategy of trying to weather losses in early-voting small states, then start winning when big states vote, beginning with Florida's winner-take-all primary on Jan. 29.
Giuliani retains a 13-point lead in Florida, according to the latest polls averaged on RealClearPolitics.com, although Huckabee appears to be surging there, too. Giuliani's camp sees a Florida win as a catalyst to racking up as many delegates as possible when more than 20 other states go to the polls on Feb. 5, including California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. Some 1,113 delegates are up for grabs that day.
"We're taking a long-term approach to the campaign and look at it as a delegate game," said Michael DuHaime, Giuliani's campaign manager. "This is not like the playoffs where if you don't win you don't advance. This is more like the Electoral College."
Still, some analysts question that strategy and wonder whether Republican voters are having second thoughts about the fiscally conservative, socially moderate ex-mayor.
"He can't finish in fourth place in Iowa, he can't finish third or fourth in New Hampshire, he can't finish third or fourth in South Carolina and expect to win in Florida," said Dick Bennett, the president of the nonpartisan American Research Group. "Voters look at winners. They don't look at fourth- or fifth-place finishers to take on the first-place candidate" in the other party.
In New Hampshire, Giuliani once was firmly in second place behind former Gov. Mitt Romney of neighbor-state Massachusetts, but lately McCain has edged ahead, dropping Giuliani into third.
"Giuliani has been running (television) ads for three, four full weeks, but his polling numbers aren't going anywhere," said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor. "If things don't start moving in a week or two, you have to wonder about him and New Hampshire. The numbers aren't going in the right direction for him right now."
Giuliani also may be suffering from a recent spate of bad news: the federal indictment of Bernard Kerik, his hand-picked police commissioner, on corruption charges and stories questioning exactly when Giuliani's then-mistress — now wife — Judith Nathan started getting taxpayer-funded New York City police protection.
The negative stories are starting to stick in South Carolina, according to Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor and a Republican political consultant. Giuliani is now in fourth place in the Palmetto State, and Huckabee has surged into first place. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson is second, and Romney is third, according to RealClearPolitics.com. South Carolina Republicans vote on Jan. 19.
"People are learning more about him and his social policies, and that doesn't help him," Woodard said. "As they are learning more, they're not liking Rudy."