WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. -- Location is everything, and Florida proves it. For the last several weeks, Rudy Giuliani has dipped in the polls, given lackluster and verbose speeches on policy, and failed to rev up the supporters in New Hampshire and Iowa. But tonight, we saw what's to come.
With a rip-roaring crowd that could drown the blast of a jet engine, Giuliani pulled his wife Judith on stage to screams of delight as hundreds of Rudy rooters waved signs of support in West Palm Beach. For those who have followed him for the past few months on the trail, Giuliani seemed to suddenly awaken, and just in time.
"We get the next twenty days to win the primary, to have that become the springboard to winning the nomination, and then we will have laid the groundwork for doing what has to be done if you want to be the President of the United States and you want to get elected in November, you have to win Florida!" belted Giuliani.
"We will have laid the groundwork for it, right now - January - as we fight for your vote. As we fight for every single vote in Florida!"
Giuliani was mobbed by the crowd as he made his way toward the exit. If there is one thing that becomes clear about covering a candidate like the former mayor, it's that Giuliani seems to always be on the lookout and suspicious of questions he receives from the press - and he doesn't hesitate to dismiss one he might find disrespectful. That's likely why he paused for a moment when I shouted over boisterous Giuliani fans, "Where has the mayor we've seen tonight been for the past month?"
He smiled and continued moving through the crowd, so I tried again.
"Where is this excitement coming from?"
He looked up for a moment while signing baseballs and finally answered, "It's a great crowd!"
But his answer gives more insight than he might have intended. While his numbers have dropped in the past month, it's been a time when he's been campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa; two states his campaign strategized to be able to leave behind. Giuliani audiences there were scant and subdued for the most part, and so were Giuliani's appearances.
Tonight he fed off of what he needs now whether it was part of the strategy or not: a return to the vigor and enthusiasm that his campaign has lacked in past weeks. And Giuliani can't pass up this window of opportunity. If Florida fails him, he'll have no catalyst going into Super Tuesday, Feb. 5 - and with at least four other Republican rivals holding out for that contest, there might be nothing but Florida to put him over the top.
Giuliani has a special connection with Florida voters already. This is a state where he has spent more time on the trail and more time in past years than any other besides the New York area, and he's got the poll numbers to prove it. He is glorified by many members of the Cuban community, and like tonight's fracas, Giuliani shows a more spirited and embracing side when he's around that community. He's been seen donning Cuban revolutionary bracelets in support for the fight against the Castro regime. He hugs and backslaps those who barely speak English, who don't care about the mayor's insistence on being able to read, write and speak the language.
And then there are the transplants: Grandma and Grandpa who retired here from Brooklyn or the Bronx, standing by with a Yankees cap and a Sharpie to meet a man who owns several of the team's World Series rings - they show up in droves to meet their former mayor.
Tonight was the "kickoff," as he calls it, for a month where he'll revisit all of those old friends again, and fight to find more of them who might will their vote to him. We'll see if he can carry the level excitement his crowd had tonight deep into January. He's off to a fiery start.