It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Rudy The growing sentiment among Republican stalwarts is that former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani is well-equipped and positioned to outlast Republican competitors. He is also seen as having the best chance to beat Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in 2008.
NPR logo It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Rudy

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Rudy

Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani seems to be emerging as the Republicans' No. 1 candidate in the White House race. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani seems to be emerging as the Republicans' No. 1 candidate in the White House race.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

It may be too early to say the fix is in for the Republican nomination for president in 2008. But it is not too soon to say that those in the GOP most capable of bringing the stars into alignment for a favored frontrunner are beginning to coalesce behind Rudy Giuliani.

The White House has been careful not to take sides in public, but the affinity between its priorities and those of the Giuliani campaign is growing.

It's not just Rudy's vow to see the war in Iraq through to victory. You can get that kind of salute from most all the Republican hopefuls. But a Giuliani election would be a more satisfying vindication for President Bush because Giuliani will defend the current White House like he means it — con brio.

Put another way, Giuliani can be counted on to carry on the jut-jawed assertion of power and right that has been this administration's calling card in the capitals of the world — including Washington.

President Bush and Rudy Giuliani have not always been allies or friends. When the president first ran for governor of Texas in 1994, Giuliani was endorsing the liberal Democrat Mario Cuomo for re-election as governor of New York.

But Sept. 11 changed everything, and not least the political trajectories of the mayor and the president who shared a moment of destiny. Giuliani and Bush are still in public life today because of Sept. 11 and their response to those events. Had there been no such catastrophe, the mayor would more likely have left office for good that winter and the struggling fledgling president of early 2001 might well have been a one-termer.

The attacks intertwined these two disparate careers. A steady stream of political commerce has connected their two camps ever since, although conducted less visibly since the disaster of Bernard Kerik's appointment as Homeland Security czar after the election of 2004.

Unsavory details of the former New York police commissioner's personal and professional life came to light and the job went to Michael Chertoff instead. But there have been other shared advisers and touchstones of commonality.

Not least of these is the community of foreign policy experts and advocates known as the neo-conservatives. This influential cadre in the media and the think tanks stands by its urging on of the Iraq invasion. It also continues to provide the intellectual argument for the president's war in Iraq, and for its sequel in Iran. Needless to say, it has strong views on other issues as well.

This group is not only well-represented in Giuliani's councils, it dominates them. And so any and every indication from the candidate that he would pursue an aggressive (and powerfully pro-Israel) policy in the Middle East is greeted with approval from the administration and its acolytes.

The gathering of potent personalities behind Giuliani has yet to approach the phalanx that propelled George W. Bush into the primaries eight years ago. It is not even comparable to the coalitions backing Robert Dole in late 1995 or George H.W. Bush in late 1987. But like Dole and the elder Bush, Giuliani is well-equipped and positioned to outlast competitors preferred by the more orthodox advocates of religion or tax cuts.

Giuliani is anathema to many on the right, aghast at his longstanding embrace of abortion rights and gay rights. On a separate but equal basis, Second Amendment enthusiasts abhor his record supporting gun control. And anti-tax activists regard his fiscal history with unease at best.

But right now, the growing sentiment among Republican stalwarts is that Giuliani is the candidate who can best embody the spirit conservatives have shared in the past. Just as important, he is seen as having the best chance to beat the Democrats in 2008, which means the best chance to frustrate Hillary Clinton.

And that means even church-going conservatives may swallow their misgivings and back Giuliani. Robert Novak, the influential conservative columnist, has written of polls showing the people who go to church most often still prefer Giuliani over any one of his rivals. That's pretty remarkable appeal for a Catholic Republican who admits he does not go to church often.

Yes, James Dobson gathered his cohort for a confab in Utah and issued a kind of fatwah against Giuliani. But no sooner had they done so than other "social cons" such as Gary Bauer (himself a candidate for president in 2000) scolded them, warning that a Republican schism in 2008 would mean President Hillary.

This nascent acceptance may be read as a tribute to Republican pluralism, a concept the party itself had seemed to reject. If Giuliani gets the nomination it will surely be a rebuke to those of us who thought we'd never see the GOP nominate another social liberal in our lifetimes. If you have watched Republican conventions since the 1960s and noted the steady march to the right on issues of sex, including abortion and homosexuality and gender equality, you know how hard it is to imagine some like Giuliani as the party champion.

But if we were wrong about what the GOP is capable of doing, it's clear the rank and file would still prefer to nominate someone who fits their profile and recent platforms. The problem has been finding someone who fills this bill, suffers no disqualifying debilities and looks competitive nationally.

If Giuliani is approaching cruise-control mode, it must be seen as an indictment of the other candidates, who have simply failed to make an effective case within the context of the party stalwarts.

Mitt Romney has made the best run of it, with the means to be self-financing. He — not his donor base — will decide how long his campaign lasts. But Romney has not surmounted the Mormon question, nor has he even acknowledged its importance. He seems to have become the least-liked candidate among the other candidates, and outside of Iowa and New Hampshire and Utah he seems to have next to no following at all.

Fred Thompson was supposed to make this a brand-new horse race simply by stepping into the gate. But so far, his idea of running has not looked like running at all. It has been widely observed that after entering his first debate, and leaving most observers nonplussed, Thompson went into hiding for the rest of the week.

Maybe he was getting serious about raising some money, or rethinking his low-key presentation. Maybe he was thinking he got in the race too early. But whatever he was thinking, Thompson was sending major signals that his candidacy would be, as former White House communications director Dan Bartlett has said, "the biggest dud."

In fourth place now you have John McCain, the flashy challenger of 2000 whose luster has dimmed with every passing year of the Iraq war. He thought he would be the frontrunner but instead finds himself hobbled by both his loyalty to the White House on the war and his apostasy on other issues of import to conservatives. Worst of all, he has fallen victim to campaign mismanagement and enters the last quarter of 2007 with virtually no money.

The same lack of resources keeps Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, from breaking out of the second-tier trap in which all the other candidates are ensnared.

So by default, the improbable contender who seemed least well-suited to Republican primary politics six months ago is still standing. And Republicans interested in maximizing their chances in 2008 may soon have to decide whether they have any choice but to back him.