It is axiomatic that presidential candidates in the primary run toward their base- to the right for Republicans and left for Democrats — and then veer toward the center in the general election. This playbook is being carefully followed by candidates such as Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton. Both have abandoned moderation as he runs to the right on social issues, guns and campaign finance reform and she curries favor with the anti-war left by suggesting we “un-declare” war and immediately withdraw troops from Iraq. However, Rudy Giuliani is trying something quite different and if this week was any indication it may be the best shot he has at securing the nomination.
His problem was clear — winning the nomination of a party in which he does not agree with a key segment of primary voters on some issues which are deeply felt and drive much of the media’s coverage. Rather than follow the Romney/Clinton model, he decided to do something quite extraordinary: He appears to be skipping right to the general election.
We saw this clearly in the debate. First he positioned himself as standing between his Republican party and the liberal media which continues to prophesize Republicans’ “inevitable defeat.” He also invoked the specter of Hillary Clinton and her anti-free market baggage. Then of course Ron Paul gave him the opening, which he snatched, to stand up not just for the party but for the country against the left wing canard that we brought 9-11 on ourselves. Suddenly we were not in the debate but back in New York City and he was once again back in his role as America’s Mayor. In short, Giuliani was not running against the other candidates on that stage; he was running against the terrorists (including the Fort Dix plotters “planning inside our country to come here and kill us”), the Democrats, and the Blame America First crowd.
Rudy picked up where he left off in the blogger conference call on Wednesday. Starting off with a shot at the Democrats who “ran away” from a Fox debate he continued his attack on the opposing party, not his primary opponents. The Democrats “just don’t get it” and exhibit “a level of denial,” he explained. He continued by pointing out that none were willing to even utter the words “Islamic Fundamentalists threat.” And if anyone missed his point, he reminded the questioners that the Clinton administration had made a fatal mistake in the 1990s by not insisting that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel, stamp out terrorism, and create an “accountable” government. Once again, his targets were America’s enemies and the dangerously naive Democrats.
This approach has several advantages for Giuliani. First, it is preferable to reversing or changing policy positions which might damage his intellectual credibility and invite the attention of the giant flip flops which now stalk one of his opponents. True he has made some policy accommodations on partial birth abortion, the Hyde amendment and parental notification but he clearly has decided, as Mike Huckabee pointed out, to earn points for “honesty” and move the discussion to other themes.
Second, by attacking foes of the conservative base — the media and the Clintons- he positions himself as the party leader and emphasizes the stature gap between himself and many of his primary opponents. While the other candidates elbow each other and quibble over whose record matches their rhetoric he will rely on the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” adage and endear himself to conservatives of all stripes.
Third, he drives home another rationale for his candidacy: electability. As an urban Easterner he is happy to list all the states which come into play should he become the nominee. By invoking Clinton he focuses the party on the ultimate goal of keeping the White House. So long as the prospect of Hillary looms large he hopes sober minded and practical voters will come to see him as the “safer” choice than more ideologically conventional but less electable alternatives.
Finally, this strategy is all about reminding voters of his larger than life role in 9-11. If he is another politician arguing about gun control or gay marriage he is in a dog fight; if he is America’s Mayor he is in a different category than the rest. Not since Eisenhower has a candidate run as an iconic figure. In another war and another century Giuliani hopes he can have similar success.
Will this gambit work? Many consultants and media pundits say “no” and have a lot of history and voting data to support their view. But if Giuliani convinces GOP voters these are not ordinary times, they might just nominate a very un-ordinary candidate.