NEW YORK -- Rudolph Giuliani is giving his standard talk to a small gathering at Rusty Staub's Fifth Avenue restaurant when someone asks about the death penalty. It is a question the former prosecutor could hit out of the park with a flick of his wrists. Instead, he throws the audience a curveball. "The death penalty is what I describe as an irrelevant issue," Giuliani says, his hands tightly clasped before his waist. "Politicians play the death penalty game -- you take a position on the death penalty and that becomes your crime program. I'm not going to do that." Having made his larger point -- I am not like other politicians, I will not pander to you -- Giuliani reassures the East Manhattan Chamber of Commerce that, as a battle-tested former U.S. attorney, he favors capital punishment. "I know of situations of contract murder ... where the death penalty can be somewhat of a deterrent," he says. After 5 1/2 years of media deification for prosecuting mobsters, crooked financiers and other sleazoids, the man the tabloids call "RUDY" is the odds-on favorite to become the next mayor of New York City. He is running as an outsider, an unsullied crime fighter, a "fusion" candidate trying to end Mayor Edward Koch's 12-year reign and what Giuliani describes as a corrupt and tired Democratic administration. A Republican twice appointed by Ronald Reagan, Giuliani, 45, is now a big-L Liberal as well. He eagerly accepted the backing of New York's patronage-hungry Liberal Party (which detests the death penalty), yet sees no inconsistency in having courted its polar opposite, the Conservative Party. Press him about this blatant fence-straddling and Giuliani, insisting that we-must-rise-above-narrow-ideology, invokes the ghost of Fiorello La Guardia. All of which raises the question: Who is this man? What does he stand for? And what makes him think he can run the most ungovernable city in Western civilization? Giuliani's answer boils down to a palpable self-confidence, a Reaganesque message of hope tempered by a tough-minded approach to crime. The product of a strict Catholic education from kindergarten to college, Giuliani nearly entered the priesthood as a young man, and at times he seems to hold out the promise of salvation from an evil world. "We must not be bogged down and eaten up by all the negativism that exists at every level of society," he told black students at Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn, his alma mater. Despite the mounting plagues of crack, homelessness and AIDS, "we can never let ourselves get down," he told Hispanic parishioners at a South Bronx church. Giuliani is starting to shed the stern, forbidding demeanor of all those televised press conferences announcing indictments of Mafia figures and Bronx politicians. At his formal announcement, he proudly hoisted his 3-year-old son, Andrew, before a battery of minicams as his wife, Donna Hanover, news anchor for New York's Channel 11, stood beaming. They live in a small Upper East Side apartment, a short stroll from Gracie Mansion, and usually order in Chinese food and pizza because Hanover doesn't like to cook. Hanover describes her husband as a doting father who likes to take Andrew to the local heliport, but also as a man who reads Foreign Affairs from cover to cover each month. Although not a physically imposing figure, Giuliani projects an aura of strength, and in a year dominated by crime and drugs, the mayor's race is probably his to lose. But it is not clear whether this self-styled supercop, so often compared to 1930s gangbuster Thomas E. Dewey, can rein in a troublesome streak of self-righteousness. In the first week of his campaign, Giuliani was so rattled by charges from Koch and multimillionaire cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder that he overreacted to the point of shrillness. "If they really were men, they'd apologize," he declared at one point. In an interview in his Sixth Avenue law office, with its majestic view of the Empire State Building, Giuliani is more relaxed and personable than he appears on the stump, even risking a pink tie with his crisp white shirt. Gone is the awkward smile that sometimes flashes at odd public moments. "I've always thought, well, as people get to know me better they will see there's a lot more dimensions to me as a person," he says. "There are certain images that people develop based on the job that you do. People have this notion that all I do is work. ... I enjoy sports, I enjoy music, I enjoy my friends, I love to spend time with my family." This theme -- Rudy is just a regular guy who likes to eat hot dogs at Yankee games -- is sounded by those around him at every opportunity. "Rudy's main thing has always been work," says Peter Powers, a Manhattan tax lawyer who has been a close friend for three decades. "But there's another side to him. He likes to laugh and have fun and talk politics. He's also a serious guy with a mission in life." Howard Wilson, who ran the criminal division when Giuliani was U.S. attorney, doesn't see the image of a "harsh, tough exterior" as a drawback. "I really wonder if you have to smile to be elected mayor if you've done what he's done," Wilson says. "I think people are ready for a guy who's going to take charge." A Dinner Proposal In 1982, when Donna Hanover was a Miami TV news anchor, a friend asked if she wanted to have dinner with Giuliani, then the associate attorney general. Giuliani was coming to town on business, the friend said, and besides, he would make a good interview. Hanover was divorced, and Giuliani had recently ended his first marriage. The anchor agreed to meet him. "I must have gotten on two lists, because his secretary called and said, 'I understand you want to interview Mr. Giuliani.' ... I thought, this is amazing, I've never had anybody's secretary call me for a date," said Hanover, a warm and friendly blonde. But the secretary said Giuliani would not have time for dinner, a misunderstanding rectified by Giuliani when he called. "I said to him, 'You really ought to get your personal relations and your press relations straightened out,' " Hanover recalled. "I did give him a little bit of a hard time. I was trying to make sure he wasn't a reactionary or something." After all, she said, "he worked for the Reagan administration." They had dinner. She did the interview. Six weeks later, Giuliani proposed. Hanover accepted. She is expecting their second child, a daughter, in August. Cynics see this whirlwind romance as a metaphor for Giuliani's seduction of the press. Clearly enamored of a prosecutor who delivered perfect sound bites on deadline, the media here often conveyed the impression that the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York could walk on water. David Garth, Koch's media adviser, calls the relationship between Giuliani and reporters "one of the great unwritten stories. You'd have to be out of your mind to give up a source. Now a lot of these people who he serviced are out there covering him." Giuliani bristles at the charge. "That's a very cynical interpretation of somebody who can work the press considerably better than I could ever dream of. ... I never leaked information that was prohibited, on the record, off the record or in between the record." At the same time, the man who once donned a leather jacket and dark sunglasses for a televised undercover bust admits he had a certain proclivity for press coverage. "It was part of my role to inform the public of what we did and how we did it, to demonstrate that the criminal justice system can be successful," he says, deadpan. "The publicity was far beyond what is ordinarily required," says a former prosecutor who has opposed Giuliani as a defense lawyer. "I don't think he ever missed an opportunity to speak anywhere. He'd go up to Albany to speak to five Boy Scouts." Without question, Giuliani's tenure was marked by a string of spectacular successes. He brought dozens of insider trading cases, charging such Wall Street figures as Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken. He put away Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno and other Mafia chieftains. He personally tried and won the racketeering case against former Bronx Democratic boss Stanley Friedman. He won an indictment against former Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos. He won convictions against Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) and a dozen others in the Wedtech case. And on and on. But there were some notable missteps as well: When he was the Justice Department's No. 3 official in 1981, Giuliani met privately with representatives of McDonnell Douglas Corp. -- while four company executives were under indictment for overseas bribery -- without consulting the prosecutors in the case. Giuliani later dropped the indictments and settled the case for a $1.2 million fine, despite harsh criticism from the prosecutors involved, according to James B. Stewart's book "The Prosecutors." Giuliani has defended the settlement as fair and called the dissenting prosecutors "jerks." During the Bronx corruption case, Giuliani authorized the secret taping of Friedman's lawyer, Thomas Puccio, a longtime friend who had attended Giuliani's wedding to Hanover. Giuliani disclosed the bugging at the Friedman trial so he could use evidence from the undercover informant who had met with Puccio. Giuliani was widely criticized for authorizing a divorce-fixing indictment against former Miss America Bess Myerson, who was acquitted of all charges. The case fell apart on the tangled testimony of Sukhreet Gabel, the emotionally troubled daughter of Myerson's codefendant, who secretly taped her mother with the help of FBI agents and then testified against her. In early 1987, Giuliani had Richard Wigton and two other prominent Wall Street traders arrested and handcuffed at their offices on insider-trading charges. An indictment followed, but Giuliani later dropped the charges while announcing that the three suspects remain under investigation -- a kind of legal limbo that continues to this day. Giuliani now calls the case "my biggest mistake." "My client was humiliated and lost his job and was in effect smashed," says Wigton's lawyer, Stanley Arkin. "For him to have to live like this is outrageous. To leave him hanging in the wind for two years is cruelty beyond question." When Giuliani announced his mayoral candidacy last month, a reporter asked if he had been an overzealous prosecutor. On a silky-smooth day, Giuliani gave a narrow, lawyerlike answer. "I believe I've had a record of respecting constitutional rights," he said. Giuliani has also been dogged by reports that his new law firm, White & Case -- which is paying him $500,000 or so for relatively little lawyering -- has represented the government of Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega. While there is no evidence that Giuliani was even aware of the Noriega connection, Koch and Lauder, Giuliani's opponent in the September Republican primary, have gleefully milked the issue. Giuliani has lashed out in return, producing a Newsday headline that delighted his rivals: "RUDY SNARLS." Giuliani sought to dampen the issue by announcing that he would take an unpaid leave of absence from the firm until the election. Donna Hanover is not surprised by the slings and arrows. "People were afraid he wouldn't be able to handle it," she says. "They thought he'd lived in this ivory tower. But he's a real scrapper, he has been his whole life." Perhaps Giuliani is simply serving notice that he can fend for himself in hand-to-hand combat. During the interview, Giuliani seizes on Lauder's vow not to raise taxes and smoothly slips into ridicule: "He doesn't have any hope in the world of becoming mayor. This is a game for him. It's a game to get name recognition, become a celebrity. He's running because he's bored, he has all that money, there isn't much to do. ... He can say things like that because never in a million years will he have the responsibility of running this city." Then, without missing a beat, he turns to Koch. "This man can't govern the city anymore. It is patently obvious to everyone but him. Forget the polls, go talk to people. Go talk to his voters out in Brooklyn and Queens, the people who put him in office. ... The jokes that used to work, the mean, cruel statements that used to be seen as funny, now are seen as mean and cruel. The act has played a little bit too long." A Political Upbringing Harold Giuliani, a Flatbush bar and grill owner, taught his son Rudy to box when he was 2. The elder Giuliani, a second-generation Italian American, "was a strict disciplinarian," his son recalls, and the two frequently clashed as Rudy grew into adolescence. The extended family, including two uncles who were policemen, instilled in Rudy a keen interest in current affairs. Each summer the clan would gather at Rudy's grandmother's house in Sound Beach, Long Island, where the table was filled with lasagna and politics. "Rudy was a liberal back then, a Kennedy Democrat," says his friend Powers, a Goldwater conservative. He says the future prosecutor strongly opposed the Vietnam War, favored the civil rights movement and delivered tirades against Richard Nixon. "He was very serious-minded, although not to the point of being boring," Powers says. "We'd share a bed in Sound Beach, and he'd wake up early and be reading a book in bed." During one double date in college, he recalls, "Rudy and I were in the kitchen talking about politics and left the girls outside for about two hours." For much of his four years at Manhattan College, where he was president of his fraternity, Giuliani remained torn about entering the priesthood; the celibacy vows gave him pause. He opted for New York University Law School instead. After graduating in 1968 and clerking for a federal judge, Giuliani became an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan, where he prosecuted major police corruption cases. His most famous moment came in 1974 during a grueling cross-examination of Brooklyn congressman Bertram Podell, on trial for fraud and conspiracy. In a scene out of a grade-B movie, Giuliani pummeled Podell with questions so relentlessly that the congressman stopped the trial and pleaded guilty. Giuliani "kept telling himself how bad it was what this guy had done, to psych himself up," Powers says. An opera buff, Giuliani also led a group of prosecutors on regular forays to the Metropolitan Opera, although one charter member, Kenneth Feinberg, says Giuliani's range did not extend beyond "the standard spaghetti operas." Feinberg, now a Washington lawyer, recalls driving back with Giuliani and their wives from a weekend visit to Williamsburg. "He was in the back seat, he had bought a book about Jefferson and he was reading me quotes about government and sovereignty. He was really into it. Those of us who were close to Rudy then knew he was destined for a career in politics. Mayor of New York is not his final destination." Although the young prosecutor voted for George McGovern in 1972, he soon gave up on the Democratic Party, saying it had moved too far left. Giuliani switched his registration to independent, which proved fortunate when the Ford administration brought him to Washington for a stint at the Justice Department. After four years in private practice, Giuliani became a Republican shortly before joining the Reagan administration -- prompting George Clark, Lauder's campaign chairman, to charge that the ex-prosecutor "should have had himself indicted for prostitution." These days, Giuliani often sounds like a liberal Democrat as he talks about the plight of homeless people and drug addicts. But he steadfastly refuses -- I am not like other politicians -- to be pigeonholed. "This is very hard for me to explain to people," Giuliani says. "I haven't spent my life in partisan politics. I haven't grown up as a neo-something-or-other. ... I'm not a blind ideologue." To underscore the point, Giuliani cites his refusal to represent the Reagan administration in its attempt to knock people off the Social Security disability rolls, which was later ruled illegal. He also carefully distanced himself from his onetime boss, former attorney general Edwin Meese III, even authorizing an assistant during the Wedtech trial to call Meese "a sleaze." Despite such zigzags, the candidate insists he is selling more than Dukakis-like competence. "If you're just a pragmatist," he says, "you can't lead anyone. You can't inspire anyone. Everything becomes 9 to 5. You have to set goals for people that ennoble them somewhat." Thank You and Goodbye Giuliani is finishing his talk to the East Manhattan Chamber of Commerce when a woman in the audience begins badgering him about abortion. How can he claim to care about poor and minority women and deny them the right to choose? The candidate, calling the question "unfair," repeats his standard formulation. "I am as a Catholic, as a religious matter and a moral matter, opposed to abortion," he says. "As a public official, I will uphold those laws ... and that includes the legal right in New York to an abortion." What he doesn't mention is that he also believes the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision should be overturned. As Giuliani is leaving the breakfast, the woman, a hospital administrator, collars him in the hallway and begins another tirade. This is something of a new experience for a man accustomed to fielding uncomfortable questions with a brusque "no comment." "There are a lot of people of good will and good faith who have a totally different view than you do," Giuliani says, edging away. The woman persists. "All I can do is tell you my position and I'll let you evaluate it," Giuliani says. He gives her a quick handshake and disappears into a waiting car on Fifth Avenue. For His Wife, Career Conflict? Donna Hanover, who anchors the 7:30 p.m. news on New York's Channel 11, is struggling with a dilemma many congressional wives would find familiar: how to preserve her career despite being married to a prominent politician. John Corporan, WPIX-TV's news director, took Hanover to lunch a few weeks ago and said he was thinking of reassigning her to street reporting because of the mayoral candidacy of her husband, Rudolph Giuliani. Corporan says he told her that "if you're on the air every night, if you appear as a subliminal plug for your husband, it wouldn't be fair to the other candidates." But Corporan decided the reassignment wasn't necessary after Giuliani called and explained that Hanover would not be campaigning for him. At most, Giuliani said, she would occasionally accompany him to events where spouses are expected. Hanover says she sees no reason to trade her anchor chair for the role of political wife. "I've been a journalist since 1973," she says. "I didn't meet him until 1982. ... I've told them that if there's any particular day where it's awkward, where somehow I'm in the news, then I'll take that day off." Hanover is equally cautious in the newsroom. "I never comment when any of the reporters do a {political} story. They'll sometimes say, 'What do you think of this sound bite?' and I'll just say, 'I don't have an opinion.' " But the arrangement doesn't satisfy Giuliani's Republican opponent, Ronald Lauder, who has refused to give his advance schedule to WPIX on grounds that someone there might tip off his rival. Corporan said he was "amused" by the move. And what if Giuliani wins the election and Hanover has a change of address to Gracie Mansion? "I think she could function as First Lady and still continue as anchor," Corporan said. "It would have to be very carefully scrutinized."