Lucky Star

By Dan Balz
Sunday, December 16, 2007

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has defied political gravity. At odds with the majority of his party on abortion, guns and gays, he has nonetheless led in national polls all year. But as 2008 nears, the question is whether his luck can hold.

Giuliani is the biggest celebrity in the Republican field in a year when such things seem to matter. His leadership in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, elevated him to the national stage in a way few politicians other than a president have experienced. He has capitalized on fame to overcome handicaps that many smart strategists thought would sink him.

His advisers -- and some longtime GOP strategists -- would argue against using the word "luck" to describe Giuliani's standing in the battle for the party's presidential nomination, and perhaps with good reason. In their view, Giuliani has outperformed the others in the fractured Republican field.

The former mayor has built his case for the nomination on tough talk about national security and on tireless promotion of his record of fighting crime and slashing welfare rolls in New York. His argument is aimed at proving that he is as conservative as the other leading candidates -- at least on those issues where he isn't.

To overcome his weaknesses on social issues and the possible fallout from his messy personal life, Giuliani has sought to demonstrate that he would be the party's most effective nominee. He has attacked Democrats -- including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York -- more harshly and consistently than he has any of his rivals. Promising to keep the country on offense against Islamic extremism, he has said that Democrats would adopt a strategy that would cost more lives than his approach would.

A year ago, many Republicans doubted that Giuliani would even seek the nomination. He dallied in 2006 as candidates such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and then-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lined up endorsements and assembled organizations in early-voting states. But with bravado that seemed to reflect the city he once governed, Giuliani set out to prove them wrong -- and by early last spring held a sizable lead. His rise was aided by unexpected problems that nearly sank McCain's candidacy.

Giuliani has tried to impress otherwise skeptical Republican voters by emphasizing his general-election appeal, arguing that he uniquely could put some traditionally blue states such as California and Illinois into play. Pursuing a strategy that no GOP candidate has tried before has been possible only because the political calendar has been radically redrawn. No one has ever survived a string of losses in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and gone on to win the nod. But Giuliani's advisers have argued that the former mayor can capture the prize if he wins the Florida primary on Jan. 29 and then sweeps many of the more than 20 states that will vote Feb. 5 and offer a delegate bonanza.

Giuliani has become a target of criticism, particularly from Romney, who has accused him of presiding over a "sanctuary" city that welcomed illegal immigrants. He also has been thrown on the defensive over allegations about security costs for his spouse Judith Nathan when they were first dating and he was still married to his second wife.

Recent national polls show Giuliani sliding, further complicating his late-state strategy. His hopes now depend in part on whether former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee bests Romney in Iowa and prevents the former Massachusetts governor from gaining serious momentum. Huckabee is someone Giuliani's advisers think they can beat. It may be that Giuliani's team has the ideal strategy for this unusual year, in which the Republican electorate appears badly fractured. But even Giuliani has expressed reservations about waiting until Florida for his first win.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company