Debate Spotlight Is Giuliani's -- to Use or Lose

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ten Republican presidential candidates will gather in South Carolina tonight for their second debate of the month, with much of the focus likely to be on former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and his continuing effort to extricate himself from a controversy over his position on abortion.

Giuliani, the putative front-runner for the GOP nomination, has struggled for the past two weeks after declaring at the first GOP debate in California that it would be "okay" if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide, but then added that it would also be "okay" if the justices upheld that ruling.

Giuliani sought to put the controversy behind him with a speech in Houston last Friday in which he declared abortion "morally wrong" but defended the right of women to decide for themselves. He then added fuel to the fire during a taped interview on "Fox News Sunday" when he declared that he did not have an answer to the question of whether life begins at conception.

"I think the candidate that has the most to prove is Giuliani," said Scott Reed, a GOP strategist and former presidential campaign manager for Robert J. Dole. "Since the first debate his standing with conservatives has spun out of control, and he has a real challenge ahead of him."

Giuliani's two principal rivals, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, fared better in reviews of the first debate. McCain gave a solid, if overcaffeinated, performance in the eyes of some supporters, at a time when his campaign had been widely criticized for anemic fundraising and his poll numbers were sagging.

Romney, the least known of the three, gained favor for his performance and followed that with an appearance Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes." Time magazine put him on this week's cover, but the article was not entirely flattering.

Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said his candidate will be prepared for tougher scrutiny and potential criticism from the other candidates because of the attention given to his earlier debate performance. "I think there is a sense that the governor's momentum is something that might need to be stopped," he said.

Giuliani advisers put a similar spin on the scrutiny the former mayor has received. "Maybe there will be more attention or discussion of him after the debate, depending on what happens," spokesman Jim Dyke said. "But when you're the front-runner that's what happens. People want to know what you're for and what you're going to do as president, and you have to keep explaining."

McCain advisers are happy to see Giuliani under the microscope. Their candidate suffered similar scrutiny over his support of President Bush's troop increase in Iraq. Their view is that McCain's problems are less serious than Giuliani's because the New Yorker's stances challenge conservative social values that have been the foundation of the Republican Party for two decades.

Tonight's debate will look and possibly sound much like the first, with 10 candidates onstage for 90 minutes, leaving little time for any of them to make more than the briefest of impressions. Their answers will be limited to one minute each, with rebuttals 30 seconds each. There will be no opening or closing statements and no candidate-to-candidate questioning.

Fox News Channel and the South Carolina Republican Party are hosting the debate in Columbia, with Fox airing it live at 9 p.m. "The best thing we can do is ask good, sharp, tough questions," said Marty Ryan, Fox's executive producer of political programming. "Our goal is to make sure they don't just give their stump speech in one-minute chunks."

Giuliani has led in national polls taken since the first GOP debate, but his advantage over second-place McCain is smaller now than it was six weeks ago. Romney generally runs third in those polls, well behind Giuliani and McCain. In the three states with the earliest contests -- Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- the race is even more unsettled.

Tonight's debate offers another opportunity for candidates in the next tiers to attract attention. It could be Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas or former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee challenging Giuliani or Romney on abortion, or Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado challenging McCain on immigration.

"Huckabee proved to be the most likable" in the first debate, GOP strategist Joe Gaylord said. "So he has the opportunity from the lower tier to have more people pay attention to him."

The Spartanburg Herald-Journal reported that some unsigned literature attacking Mormonism was being mailed to some households in the state. The literature was described as "an eight-page diatribe," with the title "Mormons in Contemporary American Society: A Politically Dangerous Religion?" It did not mention Romney, who is Mormon, but was seen by politically active South Carolinians as a direct attack on his candidacy, the paper said.

Tonight's debate will draw a lot of press, but Republican strategist Mike Murphy, who has worked for both McCain and Romney in the past, said the early debates will probably do little to shape the race. "There's nothing you can do to put the campaign away this early," he said. "You can only screw up."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company