NEW YORK - Republican Rudy Giuliani challenged political convention in shrugging off early primaries while staking his presidential candidacy on delegate-rich, later-voting states, a strategy that could be a colossal failure or a masterful calculation.
The former New York mayor is suffering from money woes and hasn't won a single primary. Other Republicans have been gobbling up delegates and national media attention, but Giuliani has won one key bet he placed long ago: Even after the first few contests, there would be no clear front-runner in the GOP field.
As his opponents spent time, money and energy battling in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and beyond, Giuliani shifted his resources to Florida, where he hopes its winner-take-all Jan. 29 primary will hand him 57 delegates and catapult him overnight to the top of the race for the nomination. He has no delegates so far.
Mitt Romney, who won the Michigan primary Tuesday, leads the delegate race with 42, followed by Mike Huckabee with 32 and John McCain with 13. It takes 1,191 to win the nomination.
Giuliani did not always pin his hopes on Florida. Initially, his campaign plan was multi-pronged, until he decided to abandon efforts in early voting Iowa and New Hampshire. His strategists originally thought he had a good shot at winning an early state or two, and at one point he gained ground in New Hampshire — spending a chunk of cash there — and was also a leader in South Carolina polls.
But the strategy changed along the way and now rests entirely on Florida. As Giuliani put it to reporters this week in Pompano Beach, Fla., there's no time to second-guess whether it was the right way to go.
"You can't go back into the past," he said. "This is the strategy we chose; this is the one we're going to use. We believe in it; we believe it's going to work."
The next day, a new poll showed his Florida lead had evaporated, and nationwide surveys show he has slipped from the front-runner place he once held. Top campaign staffers are going without paychecks this month to use every dollar they can in the state.
Giuliani will be campaigning nearly every day in Florida until Jan. 29, while his opponents still have to get through contests in South Carolina and Nevada.
In the final two weeks of the Florida campaign, a group of firefighters from the International Association of Fire Fighters is promising to dog him just about everywhere he goes. The group, dubbed "The Fire Brigade," says it will criticize Giuliani for what it considers to be "trumped up 9/11 credentials."
What could prove to be the demise of Giuliani's Florida strategy is momentum. The South Carolina winner and second-place finisher will come storming into Florida, forcing Giuliani to share a spotlight he has enjoyed all to himself.
And the 10 days between South Carolina and Nevada on Saturday and the Florida primary on Jan. 29 is the longest gap between votes since the nomination process began.
"It's like watching waves in a wave tank," said GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio. "Today we stand with three different guys winning in three different states heading into a blood bath in South Carolina, and one of them is going to pick up momentum out of it heading into Florida."
Florida's media market is so expensive that the candidates — having blown much of their money on the first several primaries — will be relying heavily on news coverage to get out their messages.
By camping out in Florida while they've been elsewhere, Giuliani has had the advantage of dominating headlines there. When early voting began on Monday, he was on a three-day bus tour through the state to rally supporters and remind crowds that they could vote for him before the other guys even arrived.
He revved up his audiences with red-state rhetoric about tax-and-spend Democrats, Sept. 11 references and jokes about Hillary Rodham Clinton. He took questions from voters at many stops but was rarely challenged by any questioners who seemed undecided. Many already appeared to be supporting him.
Nancy Baxter, a supporter who attended a packed rally at a seafood restaurant in Naples, Fla., said she was not concerned about Giuliani's losing his lead in polls.
"It's a wide-open race. I've never seen anything like it," she said. "He has just as much of a chance to turn it all around."
Some Giuliani supporters in Florida, however, are discouraged by the way the race is going, including Betty Nelson, a retired teacher from Bonita Springs, Fla., who was among the first to vote on Monday for Giuliani.
"I'm worried that he's not going to make it, but I hope he does because I believe in him," she said.
Giuliani's post-Florida plan counts on a victory propelling him to Feb. 5, when more than 20 states hold their contests. Giuliani has had wide leads in delegate-rich states voting that day, such as California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois, and he expected to capture smaller Connecticut and Delaware, too.
But his lead in those states also has disappeared, according to some polls.
The Giuliani Plan B holds that even where he doesn't win on Feb. 5, he could still come in second and win delegates. States in this category might include Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. Most states award delegates proportionately; only a few — including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Missouri — award delegates on a winner-take-all basis.
So far, however, it is Romney who has managed second-place finishes where he didn't win, and Romney's money and organization leave him well-positioned to steal this second-place play from Giuliani's playbook.
Associated Press Writer Libby Quaid contributed to this story