In handicapping Rudy Giuliani's chances of capturing the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, it is only fitting to paraphrase the great philosopher Rocco Lampone, a character in one of the former mayor's favorite films, The Godfather Part II. Simply put: a Giuliani victory would be difficult, not impossible.
Many of those who have dismissed Giuliani's chances of winning the Republican nomination have been arguing that he won't even run in the first place. With Monday's news that he has formed a presidential exploratory committee, even skeptics must acknowledge that the possibility of his seeking the presidency has moved from "tossup" to "likely running."
Despite his immense popularity and courageous leadership on Sept. 11, many pundits still write off his chances of winning the Republican nomination because of his liberal social views. While his positions on abortion and gay rights would have undoubtedly sunk his candidacy were he to have run for president in 2000, there are many factors that make the next presidential election unique.
The 2008 election will feature the first contested Republican presidential primary since the Sept. 11 attacks. With national security concerns sure to dominate the campaign, it's difficult to see how anybody can dismiss Giuliani's chances. Even though more than five years has passed since the attack on the World Trade Center, Giuliani has remained the country's most popular political figure, and he has spoken with intelligence both about the nature of the terrorist threat and the appropriate response to terrorism.
Though national security will be the most important issue to primary voters, it clearly won't be the only issue. If Giuliani wants to win the Republican nomination, he will have to find a way to make conservatives comfortable with his candidacy, even though he'll never win over all conservatives.
The first step will be to emphasize his positions on economic issues, in which both his rhetoric and his record put him within the mainstream of conservative opinion. As mayor, he cut taxes, restrained spending, reduced welfare rolls and was a staunch advocate of school vouchers.
The next step will be for Giuliani to explain his positions on issues on which he has been at odds with the conservative base. By promising to appoint judges in the mold of Scalia and Thomas, he can win over some voters who may be hesitant to vote for him because of his pro-choice views. On gay rights, he can reiterate that he supports civil unions rather than full marriage rights, and that he opposes the Federal Marriage Amendment because he thinks the issue should be left up to the states. On immigration, he can conjure up his reputation as a crime-fighting mayor to argue that he would be tough on border security, while still emphasizing comprehensive reform. The issue that will be hardest for Giuliani to overcome is his support for banning assault weapons. But that leads to another reason why the 2008 primary season is unique. With just over a year to go before the first votes are cast, there still isn't a viable candidate who is the clear choice of conservatives.
While Giuliani may be perceived as too liberal on immigration, both John McCain and Mitt Romney have supported some type of path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. It's hard to see why McCain or Romney would be any more acceptable to conservative voters who are passionate about the immigration issue.
McCain may be more socially conservative than Giuliani, but he also opposes a Federal Marriage Amendment, and has incurred the wrath of the conservative base over the years for voting against the Bush tax cuts, pushing campaign finance reform, and forging the "Gang of 14" compromise.
Romney, in trying to position himself as the conservative candidate, is now saying he is pro-life, even though he ran as a pro-choice candidate in both his 1994 Senate campaign and his 2002 gubernatorial bid. As recently as 2004, he signed a permanent assault weapons ban in Massachusetts and earlier this year, with his support, the state adopted universal healthcare. If Giuliani is to be held in contempt for his liberal stances on some issues, it's hard to see why Romney should get a free pass. Furthermore, as a businessman and one-term governor of Massachusetts, Romney has no credentials on national security, which could prove a major impediment to his candidacy.
While other candidates may emerge in the months ahead who are more popular with grassroots conservatives, it's difficult to see who among them would be a viable candidate in the general election. Newt Gingrich, for example, may be well-positioned to appeal to conservative voters, but whatever his attributes, it's unlikely he'll be able to win over the broader electorate. A CNN poll conducted earlier this month found only 28 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Gingrich, compared with 44 percent who had an unfavorable view. The same poll found that opinions of Giuliani were 60 percent favorable and just 18 percent unfavorable.
When selecting a Senator or Representative, Americans tend to be more focused on individual issues, because at the end of the day the only thing that matters is how that candidate will vote. But when selecting a President, Americans tend to vote on the basis of who they think will be the most effective leader. This tendency will be amplified in the next presidential election, when the nation will choose President Bush's successor as commander-in-chief in the War on Terror. That's why, even though a Giuliani victory may be difficult, it's far from impossible.
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