- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2007

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is maintaining a lead in Republican presidential nomination preference polls, but his campaign team appears disorganized and lacks visible “ground troops” in key states, campaign professionals say.

By contrast, they say, Arizona Sen. John McCain remains the early leader in getting the best campaign talent available nationally and in several important states.

And although former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney trails Mr. Giuliani and Mr. McCain in polls, he has impressed Republican campaign professionals as having the best-organized and most-efficient operation and also by lining up support among social conservatives in South Carolina, a key early primary state.

One key test of campaign strength for 2008 will be Florida, which has moved up its primary date to Feb. 5.

“As of right now, the Romney campaign is the only one with numbers of bodies on the ground in Florida,” a Florida Republican Party official said privately. “McCain has been working hard behind the scenes and is rumored to start ramping up staff in May.”

Mr. McCain has hired a team that did “opposition research” for the 2000 and 2004 Bush-Cheney campaigns and for the Republican National Committee. That team is providing Mr. McCain with information useful in attacking Mr. Giuliani and his record in office.

Mr. Romney, meanwhile, has hired Matt Rhoades, who as RNC research director assembled enough material to damage the war-hero image of 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Just as important for the Romney campaign, Mr. Rhoades is close to Matt Drudge, whose constantly updated Internet postings are influential among TV, radio and print news reporters.

Insiders say, however, that Mr. McCain’s late-starting fundraising will come up short of expectations when the Federal Election Commission’s candidate filings are released.

The most recent Gallup Poll found that the combined first and second choices of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents gave Mr. Giuliani a 19-percentage point lead over Mr. McCain.

In the same poll, however, two Republicans who have not declared their candidacies — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson — placed third and fourth respectively, dropping Mr. Romney to fifth. Mr. Romney’s combined first- and second-choice placement was 9 percent, according to Gallup.

Campaign observers say Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Thompson cannot wait much longer to decide whether to enter the presidential race, because this front-loaded primary schedule means the Republican nomination this time will likely be decided by Feb. 5.

Late-comers risk losing the race to build effective teams — a race in which the front-runners already have a long lead. Winning in the key Iowa caucus especially requires organization at the grass-roots level, said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party.

“Romney has the best, most-extensive and longest-tenured staff in Iowa,” he said. “McCain’s has nearly caught up and done it in half the time it took Romney, who began putting an organization on the ground a year ago here.”

Mr. Laudner says it is nearly impossible for a candidate with the best organization to lose Iowa to someone with a poor organization.

“It takes organization — person-to-person recruiting — and a good candidate to get people to other people’s living rooms, fire halls or high school classrooms on caucus night,” said Mr. Laudner. “Running commercials in Iowa is like an insult.”

Another test of organizational strength will come in South Carolina, a primary won by the eventual Republican nominee every year since Ronald Reagan won it in 1980.

“McCain has put together a who’s who list of conservative legislators and statewide elected officials, but he hasn’t come up here to York County,” Henry Eldridge, chairman of the county’s Republican Party. “However, I will say Mitt Romney has done a fantastic job in this area from a grass-roots point of view.”

“In South Carolina, Romney and McCain have the two best organizations and are almost identical, with paid staff at state and regional levels and volunteers as county coordinators,” said Rick Beltram, the Spartanburg County Republican Party chairman.

New Hampshire is a different story. “McCain has the best team so far,” said New Hampshire Republican adviser David Carney. “Romney seems to have lost his way up here and has been flat since the announcement. And Giuliani has just begun to assemble an organization but has appeal beyond the traditional grass-roots reach.”

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