MANCHESTER, N.H.-- Many skeptics continue to question whether Rudy Giuliani is serious about making a run for the White House, but it was abundantly clear on Saturday that he had come to Manchester for more than the sub-freezing temperatures.
Addressing over 500 activists at the New Hampshire Republican Party's annual meeting as part of a two-day swing through the state, Giuliani sketched the broad outlines of what looks like a presidential run. Sounding at times like a motivational speaker, Giuliani cautioned against cynicism and pessimism in the wake of November's election results and challenges in the ongoing War on Terror. The message especially resonated with the audience in this critical primary state, where the Republican Party just lost control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time since the 1870s.
"The best way we remain safe and we retain our freedom...is remaining on offense, remaining strong and not becoming weak in a time of pressure," Giuliani said in a line that drew the biggest applause from the crowd at the Palace Theater.
In a preview of his emerging campaign theme -- "Proven Leadership" -- Giuliani vowed that "when I promise you things, if I do, when I do, as I do, I'll promise them because I've done them before."
Drawing on his background transforming New York City as mayor, he elaborated that, "When I say to you that we should reduce taxes to stimulate an economy, Iâ€™ll say it to you because I did it, and I saw it work. When I say we have to bring peace and security...Iâ€™ll say that to you because I saw that happen in New York, and I made it happen. I did it."
While that is all well and good, the question on the minds of all political observers is whether the adoration Giuliani earned as a successful mayor and inspired leader on September 11 will translate into victories in Republican primaries in which social views often play a dominant role.
In the speech, Giuliani gave some early clues as to how he may handle the biggest obstacle facing his candidacy. He emphasized the "basic core principles" that Republicans agree on -- individual freedom, fiscal responsibility, and an aggressive war on terrorism -- and argued that nobody will agree with a candidate 100 percent of the time. Rather than reverse himself on hot button issues such as abortion and gay rights, Giuliani seems likely to argue that in these perilous times it is more important to elect the best leader than to apply rigorous litmus tests on individual issues.
Whether such a strategy will ultimately prove successful remains to be seen, but those pundits who write off Giuliani's chances would have gotten a different impression talking with active New Hampshire Republicans who listened to the former mayor's speech.
"I'd be classified as a social conservative, pro-gun, anti-abortion, all of that, but Giuliani gave a great speech," said Paul Mirski, a former state representative from a Grafton district who was defeated in November's Democratic tidal wave. "I think the Republicans, including me, could probably follow him and support him for the presidency."
Kevin Smith of Litchfield, who works for the state's division of juvenile justice, volunteered for the Giuliani campaign even though he considers himself more socially conservative than the former mayor.
"I think he's going to appeal to conservative Republicans more than people think he's going to," Smith said. "A lot of friends in my conservative circles are also supporting Giuliani...Like Rudy said, you're not going to agree with every candidate 100 percent of the time. I think on the issues that matter most to people, growing the economy, healthcare, fighting the War on Terror, putting people to work...he's very conservative."
Tom Kaczynski Jr., a party delegate, came to the meeting with his father from Wakefield, New Hampshire. Both of them are pro-life conservatives who had intended to support Mitt Romney, but after hearing Giuliani speak, they're not so sure.
"I thought that was a really inspiring speech he gave today, and I know from personal experience doing business in New York how he cleaned that city up during his reign as mayor," said Kaczynski Jr., who is in the poultry business with his father. "On September 11 there was an attack on us. The man was right there, he saw some of his friends dying, and he persevered."
His father said that "Before today, I had no opinion on Giuliani, and he impressed me."
To be sure, not everybody was wowed by "America's Mayor." Cliff Newton, a former state representative, described the speech as just "okay," saying that he saw Romney speak in September, and found him more energized.
Gary Hopper, a former state representative who is still politically active, took issue with Giuliani's prescription for the Republican Party.
"The broad tent that Giuliani speaks of is what got us into trouble to begin with," Hopper said. "The reason we lost is because the Second Amendment people, the conservatives, the pro-life people, the people who will hold signs for you on a cold November day were gone, they stayed home."
New Hampshire voters are used to getting a lot of face time with individual candidates and they pride themselves on closely examining all of the contenders before making up their minds. Most people in attendance on Saturday remain uncommitted, but even those who support other candidates acknowledged Giuliani's potential in the state, especially given that New Hampshire has an open primary system that allows independents to vote for candidates in either party.
Independents helped propel John McCain to victory in the Granite State in 2000, and he has maintained a solid organization here. His exploratory committee hosted a post-meeting reception at the nearby Merrimack Restaurant featuring Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. However, a lot has changed in seven years years, with indications that McCain has lost support among independents, while campaign finance reform has rankled conservatives. Romney, meanwhile, has aggressively hired talent in the state and locked up key endorsements.
Thomas Rath, the just departed Republican National Committeeman from New Hampshire, has already endorsed Romney. But he conceded that Giuliani "has a brand. He has a pre-sell," referring to the aura that has surrounded Giuliani since the September 11 attacks. "People haven't forgotten that. He will get a longer look than some might, because of how people perceive him. That will get him in the door, into the living room, but then he has to sell."
Should Giuliani ever make it to the White House, this may go down as the weekend that he morphed into a presidential candidate.
Manchester Mayor Frank Giunta, who met with Giuliani privately before the address, said Giuliani didn't disclose to him whether he had made a decision to run, but observed that "it certainly sounds like he'll be back."
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