Pure Horserace: All Eyes On Rudy, Romney

Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani visits The Fish Market Restaurant in Birmingham, Ala., while campaigning Wednesday, May 9, 2007. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
The first time all 10 Republicans gathered together for a nationally televised debate, the results were less than electric. But due to the attention some of these candidates have received in the past two weeks, more fireworks are expected when the field takes the stage tonight at the University of South Carolina.

Most eyes will be on Rudy Giuliani, who has been under a microscope of late on issues ranging from his consulting business connections to his evolving and sometimes confusing position on abortion.

The trouble for the former New York City mayor began at the last debate, held at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in California, where Giuliani appeared to simultaneously support the over-turning of Roe v. Wade while remaining a supporter of abortion rights. Either way the courts ultimately decided, he said, would be "OK" with him.

Pledges to appoint "strict constructionist" judges as president — code to conservatives for judges who would be more likely to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision — have failed to comfort abortion foes because they've been accompanied by Giuliani's firm support for a woman's right to choose. Expect more than a couple questions for Giuliani on the issue and several more on other social hot-buttons where he parts ways with many in the GOP base.

When Giuliani is not on the hot seat, Mitt Romney is likely to attract the attention of the Fox News debate moderators and maybe some of his rivals. As Giuliani has gotten intense scrutiny of late, Romney has enjoyed something of a media boomlet. He is on the current issue of Time magazine, was featured on 60 Minutes last Sunday night and has raised his profile through cable ads that are also running in Iowa and New Hampshire.

While both men came to the race with similar weaknesses on social issues near and dear to many Republicans who vote in the primary process, Romney has thus far handled the questions better. Whereas Giuliani has sought to walk a very narrow line on abortion, Romney simply changed his position altogether. Formerly a supporter of abortion rights, the former Massachusetts governor is now a staunch opponent of abortion. He has taken a similar approach to other social issues, such as gun control.

The primary beneficiary of all the increased scrutiny of these two, particularly Giuliani, could be John McCain, who is looking for redemption in South Carolina after his bruising loss here to President Bush six years ago. His performance at the last GOP debate was somewhat jittery in style but mostly solid on substance. And while many Republicans continue to talk of additions to the field such as Fred Thompson, the Arizona senator remains the de facto establishment candidate — something that has been a decided advantage for past GOP nominees.

As was the case in California, the rest of the field will look to somehow break out of the pack and move closer to the three current front-runners. Tommy Thompson has stepped into a number of verbal flubs of late, including one during the last debate where he said it would be acceptable for a private employer to fire a worker because of their sexual preference. Thompson has apologized and retracted the answer, blaming it on a bad hearing aid and illness.

Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, Jim Gilmore and Ron Paul continue to be unable to distinguish themselves in this homogenous field. Their best chance for a big win tonight might just be more scrutiny of Giuliani. After all, when you can't bring yourself to the top of the group, it's just as good to bring the group to you. Vaughn Ververs, Columbia, S.C.

The Farmer And The Mayor Can Be Friends: Little gaffes in small states can become big problems in a presidential race — people talk to their neighbors, newspapers report on every small bit of news and, thanks to the Internet, a story once confined to a state can go national.

It comes as little surprise, then, that Rudy Giuliani quickly sought to return to the good graces of Jerry and Deborah VonSprecken, who own a farm in the small, eastern Iowa town of Olin. According to the Des Moines Register, Giuliani visited the couple on Monday after canceling a May 4 campaign appearance on their farm at the last minute.

The purpose of the event was to highlight Giuliani's opposition to the estate tax — sometimes called the "death tax" by Republicans, who often reference family farmers as its undeserving victims. But the former New York mayor's campaign canceled the event when they realized the VonSpreckens weren't rich enough to be subject to the tax.

But by stopping by the farm to apologize (and making the VonSpreckens his campaign leaders in Jones County), Giuliani appears to have smoothed things over and lowered the chances of being badmouthed on the Iowa farmer gossip circuit. — David Miller

Dodd Goes On The Air, On The Offensive: Democrat Chris Dodd launched his first TV ad this week, with a spot airing in Iowa and New Hampshire. But Dodd isn't bothering to go with one of the biographical spots that are common in the early campaign. Instead, he's calling out his Democratic opponents, accusing them of being weak in their opposition to the Iraq war.

Overlooking the White House in the ad, Dodd says: "Half measures won't stop this president from continuing our involvement in Iraq's civil war. That's why I'm fighting for the only responsible measure in Congress that would take away the president's blank check and set a timetable to bring our troops home." He then adds, "Unfortunately, my colleagues running for president have not joined me."

The ad represents one of the first examples of a candidate "going negative," if only mildly so, in this election. So far, Dodd's candidacy has been solidly second-tier. Perhaps a bold TV ad will vault him into prominence — but it also carries the substantial risk of turning voters away from him for going on the attack so early. — David Miller

But If You Thought That Was Negative … The presidential race is, for the moment, mostly two separate battles within the Democratic and Republican parties. But apparently partisanship is already rearing its ugly head in Iowa.

According to the Des Moines Register, the headquarters of the Iowa Democratic Party was vandalized over the weekend, with an unknown assailant shattering a window on the front of the party's building with an unknown object. Police have no suspects in the incident, and the state party is declining to speculate on political motivations, calling the episode a "random act of vandalism."

Let's hope it was exactly that — otherwise, the mean streets of Des Moines could be a dangerous place for politics by time winter rolls around. — David Miller
By Vaughn Ververs and David Miller