It's almost midnight, and I'm speeding down a deserted highway in eastern Iowa, my eyes fixed on the blur of perforated white lines in the road. By the time I get home tonight I will have driven 300 miles to get a one-hour glimpse of .
The town of Mount Pleasant is so far east it's almost in Illinois. Why was it necessary to race here on a Saturday night, straight from the Des Moines airport, with my suitcases still in my trunk?
Why is Giuliani worth this?
The former mayor has been toying with a White House run since winning his second term at City Hall in 1997. I remember traveling to New Hampshire with him back then, watching him work a Republican Party luncheon as locals tried to figure out who he was and what he was doing there.
He's been waiting ten years for this moment, and in truth, so have I.
There are people who see only darkness in Giuliani, and people who see only a bright, shining light. From what I can tell, there aren't many who see both. The joy of covering him is that he's the rare politician who exhibits few shades of gray. He has major character flaws - his belief in his own infallibility comes to mind - but he's also wired to accomplish great, audacious things. On any given day, he'll eagerly swan dive off a cliff. Sometimes he'll amaze. Sometimes he'll crash into a rock. Either way, it's astonishing to watch.
The candidate initially swept into Iowa with the same inexorable sense of destiny he's carried with him for decades. But by this evening, his hopes of turning Iowans into believers have long since faded. In the blizzard of television commercials that assault you with each flip of the channel here, Giuliani's are no where to be seen. The headlines are aboutand . In Iowa, America's mayor has become an also-ran.
Voters here will sit politely and listen to candidates, and that's what about 100 people come prepared to do at a sterile college meeting hall. To get things started, Giuliani aides flip on two television monitors, which play the campaign's latest commercial, warning of the terrorist threat to America. The audience watches dutifully.
And then this loud, triumphant, Star Wars-like music starts to blare, completely overwhelming the small crowd in this little room.
Giuliani appears from stage right and gets a nice round of applause. People seem excited to see this international celebrity in their small town.
Within minutes, he launches into a speech so familiar you can almost recite it from memory.
"The reality is there is one overriding challenge we have…and that's the challenge of Islamic terrorism."
"I will keep this country on offense in the terrorists' war against us."
But there is no sense of fear in this room, or in Iowa, tonight. As Giuliani paints a picture of a nation in mortal danger, the locals just stare blankly. His patter about the need to stay on offense continues for a while, but dissipates into the void. There's barely any audience reaction. A comedian would call this a dead house.
The questions for the candidate are bland and unchallenging. "I'd just like to hear how your experience on the streets of New York City have prepared you to be President of the United States," a man asks. If this is a final pitch before decision day you wouldn't know it. It's more like a job applicant's first interview.
It's amazing how context can change everything. Since 9/11, the public has viewed Giuliani as the great protector; his flaws often seemed almost irrelevant by comparison.
But just as the campaign began in earnest, the violence in Iraq subsided. Politically-speaking, it was a disaster for Giuliani. Public fear has fallen so low that news of a purported message from Bin Laden this weekend came and went without much notice. The man running to save us suddenly has nothing to save.
Stripped of his protector's mantle - temporarily, perhaps -Giuliani was suddenly evaluated as a mere mortal, and all those mortal sins came tumbling out: The mistress, the wives, the questionable clients. His campaign sat back and watched haplessly.
Iowa also became the first major test of Giuliani's ability to relate to middle-Americans. The results were clearly mixed.
"I think Giuliani is one tough son of a bitch," a retired rancher named Tom Zimmerman told me one recent evening at a Mitt Romney event. "He's got a hell of a backbone. I think he'd make a great leader in the war on terrorism."
In virtually the same breath, he proceeded to trash him.
"He's been married three times. I've known guys who've been married three times, but Giuliani was seeing his wife while she was still his girlfriend. And state troopers were involved." They were city police officers, actually.
He wasn't finished. "I mean, he made a recommendation to head up Homeland Security with a guy (Bernie Kerik) who's got an extremely questionable background - he'll probably spend some hard time. Giuliani's been around this guy for years. He should have known!
"You want that guy as president?" he asked. "Not me. I just question his morals."
Perhaps as the campaign ensues, something jarring will take place in the world, the public will be frightened and Rudy Giuliani will once again seem relevant. Perhaps his controversies will once again fade to the background.
Today, though, this larger-than-life figure is looking smaller by the day. It once seemed enough that he was a tough son-of-a-bitch with a hell of a backbone. Now, all people seem to see are his flaws and bad decisions
Pacing back and forth in front of his audience tonight, Giuliani answers questions patiently and methodically. The crowd responds by applauding tepidly. And then it's over. Cast unhappily as an extra in the Iowa drama, Giuliani and company wrap it up and leave town, with no plans to return.
If events cut his way, there will still be hope for the mayor's run. For all his drawbacks, and all the failures of his campaign to adapt to the times, Giuliani remains an extraordinary figure, capable of extraordinary feats. Tonight, though, both he and I are headed for a long trip out of Mount Pleasant.