Giuliani's Primary Hurdle

A recent poll of Republicans gave former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani an early lead for the presidential nomination over Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
A recent poll of Republicans gave former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani an early lead for the presidential nomination over Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). (By Michael Nagle -- Getty Images)
By Michael Powell and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

NEW YORK, Dec. 18 -- His national poll numbers are a dream, he's a major box office draw on the Republican Party circuit, and he goes by the shorthand title "America's Mayor." All of which has former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani convinced he just might become America's president in 2008.

He is showing the early signs of a serious candidacy: Giuliani's presidential exploratory committee throws its first major fundraiser in a hotel near Times Square on Tuesday evening, and he recently hired the political director of the Republican National Committee during 2006. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found that Republicans give Giuliani an early lead over Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is far ahead of the former mayor in organizing a national campaign.

Despite that lead, conservative party strategists and activists in key primary states are skeptical and warn that the socially liberal Republican faces a difficult campaign. They question whether a Republican who has had one marriage end in annulment and another in divorce, and favors abortion rights, gun control and immigrant rights, has much retail appeal in the evangelical and deeply conservative reaches of the GOP.

"If the Republican Party wants to send the social conservatives home for good, all they have to do is nominate Rudy Giuliani," said Rick Scarborough, a Southern Baptist minister and president of Vision America. "It's an insult to the pro-Christian agenda. . . . He's going to spend a lot of money finding he can't get out of the Republican primaries."

Giuliani is reticent about how he would overcome these obstacles -- he declined to be interviewed before the fundraisers, which are closed to the news media. But members of his intensely loyal inner circle said they expect him to run and campaign aggressively.

His strategy will be to capitalize on his status as a tough and plain-talking hero of Sept. 11, 2001. He believes, say advisers, that his tough views on national security -- he supports the USA Patriot Act -- and on Iraq, where he opposes withdrawal of troops, will overshadow his liberal social views. He will frame some of those positions as libertarian -- government has no business interfering in the bedroom.

Many Republicans say no. The party has grown steadily disenchanted with liberal members of the party, and it was Republican moderates in the Northeast who suffered many losses in last month's elections.

"For us to nominate him, we have to say those issues are not really important to us [and] we care more about winning regardless of the philosophy of our candidate," GOP consultant Curt Anderson said. "I don't believe that a majority of Republican primary voters will make that choice."

But in a measure of the party's divisions, other Republicans, such as California financier Bill Simon and talk show host Dennis Prager, say his social liberalism is of less concern. They are among a group of conservative activists who see in Giuliani a Reagan-like figure, sometimes wrong but possessed of unshakable conservative beliefs.

They also see a Republican Party that must establish a beachhead in Blue State America.

"Republicans do understand it is political suicide to keep this red-state, blue-state thing going any longer," said Barry Wynn, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and a recruit to Giuliani's banner. "We need someone competitive in all 50 states."

Giuliani, 62, presents an unusual figure in recent political history. His coolness after the Sept. 11 attacks, and his eloquence about that loss, rendered him that rare mayor who could step onto the national political stage. He has a core of socially liberal positions -- he also supports domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, although not marriage -- but wraps it in a hide as tough as any conservative Republican.

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