Giuliani Has No Real Chance With GOP Voters . . . or Does He?

GOP presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani is leading in several polls.
GOP presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani is leading in several polls. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007

The 2008 presidential campaign is just weeks old, but already an article of faith within the Republican Party -- the belief that no politician who favors abortion rights and gay rights can win the GOP nomination -- is being challenged by the candidacy of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

The man who was named Time magazine's "Person of the Year" for his response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is now leading in a slew of national polls. He is testing whether cultural and religious conservatives in the GOP will support a candidate who offers strong leadership on security and terrorism rather than ideological purity on social issues.

"This is the first Republican presidential primary since Sept. 11," said Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman who is neutral in the nominating battle. "Rudy Giuliani is a candidate who can clearly test the proposition that a Republican who is more moderate on social issues can capture the nomination. He's testing it now."

Whit Ayres, a Georgia-based Republican pollster, said he has been struck by the number of conservatives he has encountered who disagree with Giuliani on abortion or gay rights but are still attracted to him as a possible Republican nominee. The issue is whether that appeal can survive a long campaign in which Giuliani's New York record, his position on issues, his three marriages and his complex business dealings will be subjected to withering scrutiny.

"It truly is the question in Republican presidential politics at the moment," Ayres said. "There are a lot of people with a more traditional view who think that his leading in the polls is just a mirage and that he has no real chance. I don't believe that. I think there's more to this than simply name ID. "

Many GOP strategists still question whether Giuliani can survive the scrutiny and develop a message that appeals to voters across the spectrum of Republican conservatism. Based on his speech Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, there are good reasons for doubt. Giuliani highlighted his record as a tax cutter, crime fighter and welfare reformer. But he offered little resembling a traditional conservative agenda for the future, other than saying the United States must remain on offense against terrorism. The speech won a polite but hardly enthusiastic response from the audience of activists.

Still, the former mayor's decision to show up at a conference that the other leading candidate for the nomination, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), skipped may earn some goodwill with an audience not predisposed to support him.

His strength in recent national polls and some state polls has already prompted many strategists, including some in rival camps, to reexamine their long-held assumptions about a party that is approaching not only its first nomination battle since the terrorist attacks but also the first since the 2006 midterm elections, which put Democrats back into power in Washington. With President Bush's approval ratings still low, Republicans are looking for a winner.

For many months, McCain has been seen as the closest thing there is to a front-runner in the Republican contest. But Giuliani has emerged not only as the popular choice for the GOP nomination but also as the Republican candidate who is currently most highly regarded by the American people -- Republicans, Democrats and independents alike.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Giuliani leading McCain 44 percent to 21 percent, with former House speaker Newt Gingrich at 15 percent and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney at 4 percent. A month ago, Giuliani's lead was much narrower: 34 percent to 27 percent. Without Gingrich in the field, the most recent poll showed Giuliani's margin over McCain was 53 percent to 23 percent.

A veteran Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly assess the situation, said he is among those who long believed that a Republican with Giuliani's profile would have no chance. He still believes the former mayor faces significant obstacles but said the odds of Giuliani winning the nomination are not as remote as they once seemed.

He gave three reasons: the absence of a strong, traditional conservative in the GOP field; continuing antipathy among many social and religious conservatives toward McCain; and the prospect of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) becoming the next president.

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