I know — it's early. The public hasn't really focused on the presidential race yet. It's all a bunch of background noise. Except when it's not. And there is something happening in the Republican Party these days that goes beyond the usual rat-a-tat-tat of early campaigns and polls, because it's so mind-boggling: Rudy Giuliani is surging.
The pro-abortion rights, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights, thrice-married former New York mayor — who as part of a spoof once dressed in drag and got cozy with Donald Trump — is ahead. Not just in one poll — in almost every poll. And not just because he's a well-known name; GOP voters specifically rate him above the rest of the field as a leader, both inspirational and electable. In one recent poll, the putative front-runner, John McCain, beat him on just a single quality: experience — for whatever that's worth these days.
So are GOP voters just remembering the moment on 9/11 when Rudy took charge? Or can it be that they might actually embrace a candidate whose positions on social issues are nothing less than a heresy to the party's right flank? Just months ago, that seemed like a nutty idea, particularly with the once-maverick McCain going Establishment. But the inevitability of McCain took a hit with Iraq — and his support for the president's plan for a troop surge. No matter how much McCain says the war was botched — and he says it all the time now — he's still Bush's guy on adding more troops. And that's a problem.
Enter Rudy. His bid is a huge gamble with a simple premise: that, in the end, the appeal of his personality, leadership cred, and the new primary schedule (which could be full of big states with large urban areas that include lots of moderate Republicans), will give a city boy a chance to win the nomination. From the minute Giuliani announced his intention to announce (that's how they do it these days), he's been in the top tier. But guess who isn't? "Not one of the leading candidates is a conservative," says William Bennett, a conservative who hosts a radio talk show. The best horse conservatives have is Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas — smart, but not exactly about to catch fire.
Cultural conservatives are, to put it mildly, miffed about "Rudy McRomney." While McCain has spent years burnishing his conservative credentials — and has a clear anti-abortion voting record — the purists still consider him suspect. (After all, he supports embryonic stem cell research.) And Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor positioning himself as the conservative alternative to McCain, has a few credibility problems, starting with this: He was for abortion rights just two years ago, before a sudden (pre-convention?) conversion. For Republicans, who like their primaries orderly, it's all just so unsettling. To calm them down, the Giuliani crowd likes to say its guy is just like Bush, only articulate. "Republicans still believe Bush is right on the principles," says a Giuliani backer. "They just wish he could say it — and do it — better." That's obviously the strong suit for the mayor who captivated the nation on 9/11. "If your complaint is that Bush hasn't gotten results in the war on terror, you should be with Rudy," says an adviser. Rudy gets results! Sound like a slogan?
Guns and Gays
But is that enough to push aside the GOP social agenda? Not if you're a cultural conservative like Tony Perkins, who runs the Family Research Council. He says that once GOP voters figure out where Giuliani stands on the issues, they'll dump him. And if they don't, he warns, "an unenthusiastic Republican base will suppress turnout and set up a Democratic victory." But what if Giuliani finds a way to finesse his liberal past by, say, promising to appoint conservative judges, as he did recently on the stump? "I would want judges who are strict constructionists because I am," he said. As for his support for gay civil rights, an adviser says, "since when are voters not open to tolerance?" And when it comes to guns, he adds, Giuliani had a city in crisis, got the guns off the streets and reduced crime. And, in a pitch to conservatives last week, Giuliani himself called Ronald Reagan his "hero."
Will all of this work? It's unknowable. But here's what we do know: In 1999, George Bush was the only Republican candidate who could raise about $70 million to get elected. Now each man in the top tier can raise that, and more. That means they can last until they kill each other off. So get ready for stories about Giuliani's marriages, McCain's temper, Romney's Mormonism: It'll be a food fight.
Then suddenly, Newt Gingrich will appear.
By Gloria Borger