I just got off a conference call with Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime and strategist Brent Seaborn, the upshot of which (according to them) was that Giuliani could come out of the first 3-4 states without a single win and still have a relatively clear path to the nomination. The thinking hinges on the 57 winner-take-all votes available in Florida on January 29, where Giuliani has a comfortable lead, and the more than 200 winner-take-all votes available in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware on February 5. Much was also made of Giuliani's commanding (nearly two-to-one) lead in the national polls.

All in all, it sounded like a concession that Giuliani is not going to do very well in the first few contests, an outcome the campaign was understandably at pains to minimize. Hence the promise of February 5. Though DuHaime said the campaign hadn't reconciled itself to a "February 5th strategy," as Joseph Curl of The Washington Times pointed out, it pretty much sounded like one in practice. 

Two things make that especially risky: First, being the national front-runner cuts both ways. If, as now looks likely, Romney wins Iowa and Mike Huckabee takes second, I think quite a few people around the country are going to wonder why the front-runner finished no better than third there. Conversely, the relatively unkown Romney will get a big boost in the national media for drubbing the front-runner out of the gate. (Regardless of the Giuliani camp's efforts at expectations-setting, Romney is still a pretty obscure figure nationally.)

The second risk here is that national poll numbers, as Howard Dean demonstrated in 2004, are incredibly fragile creatures. Take Florida. According to Pollster.com, Giuliani now leads the second-place Romney by a 28 to 15 margin there. But Giuliani started the year in the mid-30s and has been ticking down ever since, while Romney started the year at about 7 there and has been surging in the last few months. If Romney wins three or more of the first four primary contests, it's hard to see him losing in Florida, at which point the math starts to get tough for Giuliani. Sure, Rudy has a solid base in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, but that may be moot by that point, since national momentum will probably boost Romney in many of the non-Northeastern states the Giuliani camp currently points to, like California, Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio.

None of which is to say Giuliani can't pull this off. A close second or a surprise victory in New Hampshire would suddenly make Romney look vulnerable and set Giuliani up nicely. But I don't see how Giuliani accomplishes that without a good showing in Iowa, which makes me wonder why the campaign isn't making more of an effort there. (DuHaime spent some time talking up Huckabee on this call, as if to lay the groundwork for a third-place showing in the caucuses.)  

Oh, and one other thing: No one even uttered the words "Bernie Kerik." I have yet to find a state--February 5 or otherwise--where they're going to help Rudy's chances...

Update: Jonathan Martin (whom this blogger is trying to christen "J-Mart") reports that Giuliani is stepping up his game in Iowa. As Jonathan puts it, Giuliani may not be playing to win there, but he's definitely playing. Whether or not playing is sufficient remains to be seen.  

--Noam Scheiber