RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is leading his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination in almost all of the national polls.

In his very first run for elective office, he was the underdog. That was 1989. He ran for mayor of New York and lost to Democrat David Dinkins, who became the city's first African-American mayor.

We've been looking back at the first campaigns of the presidential candidates. Some who remember Giuliani say some elements of his campaign now remind them a lot of his campaign then.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE: Some first-time candidates struggle just for name recognition. Not Rudy Giuliani. In 1989, he just resigned as U.S. attorney for southern New York after years of prosecuting mob bosses, shady Wall Street investors and corrupt politicians. He'd gone after big names and become one himself.

But the transition from prosecutor to candidate didn't come easily, says his then-campaign manager, Peter Powers.

Mr. PETER POWERS (Former Giuliani Campaign Manager): Frankly, Rudy was not comfortable as a candidate in the beginning. He'd sheepishly wave to a crowd. He didn't have that big politician wave that they all develop half the time and looked too shy. He looked uncomfortable at times.

JAFFE: Giuliani asked Powers to take over his campaign when he was way behind in the polls, even though Powers had no professional political experience. What he did have was Giuliani experience. The two had been best friends since attending Bishop Loughlin High School in Brooklyn. And you could say they really ran their first campaigns together at Manhattan College, though back then it was Giuliani managing Powers' campaign for senior class president.

Mr. POWERS: And we lost. And midway through 1989, when he made me his campaign manager, I could see he started to worry that I was going to get even.

JAFFE: In 1989, Giuliani vowed to rid the city of crime, crack and corruption, though he cast himself as a moderate, running on both the Republican and Liberal party tickets. He often compared himself to New York's famous reformist mayor of the 1930s, Fiorello La Guardia.

Mr. RUDOLPH GIULIANI (Republican, Former New York Mayor): He was a Republican, but a Republican like I am, a Republican running with the support of the Independent Fusion Party, the Liberal Party, and with a lot of Democrats supporting me.

JAFFE: But the campaign did not go as he'd planned. Giuliani expected to run against three-term incumbent Mayor Ed Koch, who'd managed to alienate many liberals and minorities. Koch lost the Democratic primary, however, to Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins, an experienced African-American politician known for his courtly demeanor. It changed everything for Giuliani.

Professor DOUG MUZZIO (City University of New York): He was now, in a sense, standing in the way of history; that is, the election of the first black mayor of the city of New York.

JAFFE: Says Doug Muzzio, a former Dinkins campaign worker who is now a professor at the City University of New York.

Prof. MUZZIO: And they never quite got their footing and they jettisoned this progressive liberal campaign and really went on the negative.

JAFFE: Giuliani attacked Dinkins' honesty, citing a questionable transfer of stock to his son, and his failure - nearly two decades earlier - to pay his taxes for several years.

In a debate, Dinkins called the charges bogus.

Mayor DAVID DINKINS (New York City): I think the people of our town don't want a prosecutor. They want a mayor.

Mr. GIULIANI: Wait a second. That's no answer to either one or the two questions. And I think the people of this town want a mayor who has nothing to fear from a prosecutor.

JAFFE: Giuliani also tagged Dinkins as a Jesse Jackson Democrat. That was an appeal to the city's large contingent of Jewish voters who despised Jackson ever since he used an anti-Semitic epithet to describe New York City.

In this context, Giuliani's signature issue of crime took on the racial overtones, says political consultant Norman Adler.

Mr. NORMAN ADLER (Political Consultant): A lot of people wanted to see a mayor who would do something about crime. But the other part of it was, is that most of this was blamed on minorities. And so the imputation was that if you wanted to see things continue, just go ahead and elect the black man.

JAFFE: Giuliani manager Peter Powers denies that they ran a racially divisive campaign.

Mr. POWERS: It was a campaign where if you attack David Dinkins, there were people who would go out there and say you're being a racist, and that was to me totally unfair because I think it's racist to say you can't attack someone if they're black the same way you would attack them if they're white.

JAFFE: On issues other than crime, Giuliani was still getting his footing. For example, he was opposed to abortion - at first. But over the course of the campaign, he changed his position, becoming pro-choice like the vast majority of New Yorkers. He even supported public funding of abortions for poor women. An analysis of the '89 campaign done by Giuliani's own staffers called his handling of the abortion issue one of his greatest missteps.

Yet in the end, Giuliani came pretty close to winning the election, recalls Bill Lynch, campaign manager for David Dinkins.

Mr. BILL LYNCH (Dinkins Campaign Manager): In a predominantly Democratic town, Mr. Dinkins, being a Democrat, still only beat Mr. Giuliani by 50,000 votes.

JAFFE: Do you attribute that to people's discomfort, perhaps, with voting for an African-American for mayor?

Mr. LYNCH: I think that had a lot to do with it. In previous campaigns, when someone wins the Democratic primary, that was paramount to winning the election. It was suppose to be a cakewalk. That was not the case for Mayor Dinkins.

JAFFE: Giuliani's friend and campaign manager, Peter Powers, says in the long run, losing turned out to be a good thing.

Mr. POWERS: We learned a lot from it. It shows the character of the man, a person who can learn from defeat. And he certainly learned from defeat and came back the next time and, you know, was successful.

JAFFE: Though when Giuliani beat Dinkins in 1993, it was by roughly the same small number of votes he'd lost by four years earlier. In the interval, he'd become a better campaigner, says City University professor Doug Muzzio. His approach to issues, however, didn't change much.

Prof. MUZZIO: He is flexible ideologically. He will, in one sense, flip-flop or in a more less negative sense he will nuance the question. And you can see that currently with his gun-control stand, his abortion stand, his immigration stand...

JAFFE: For example, Giuliani still supports abortion rights but he now also advocates appointing strict constructionist judges likely to overturn them. And he was in favor of gun control when he was mayor, but now says what's right for New York City may not apply to other parts of the country. But with his vow to take the offensive on what he calls the terrorists' war on us, Giuliani is still the law-and-order candidate, says consultant Norman Adler.

Mr. ADLER: You know, he's the same guy. Trust me, I'll protect you. This is a guy who sees himself as the protector of people against invidious forces, whether those forces are crack dealers, terrorists, or thugs in housing projects. And that's the way he's always going to interpret things.

JAFFE: And right now it's working for him, as the country is still coming to grips with the attacks six years ago on the Pentagon and Giuliani's New York.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And our thanks to Andy Lancet and the archives of member station WNYC.

You can learn more about Rudy Giuliani's political career and explore some other presidential candidates' first campaigns at npr.org.

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