Video: Giuliani discusses State of the Union

updated 2/15/2007 8:02:20 AM ET 2007-02-15T13:02:20

Rudy Giuliani's star has hardly dimmed in the five years since terrorists attacked his city on Sept. 11, 2001, and he became a national hero - the face of U.S. resolve at a time of tragedy.

The Republican dubbed "America's Mayor" hopes to ride that celebrity and his record at City Hall to the White House by emphasizing his leadership skills and embracing the strong-on-security, limited-government tenets of the GOP.

"If he can handle the scrutiny, and if events break his way, sure, he can win," said Fred Siegel, who wrote a Giuliani biography, "The Prince of the City."

Giuliani's quest to capture his party's presidential nomination won't be easy.

He's a moderate Republican from New York City, on the wrong side of social issues in the eyes of hard-core conservatives who are a crucial voting bloc in the primaries. His mayoral tenure was marked by criticism of an overzealous police force. He's linked to the city's scandal-plagued ex-police chief Bernard Kerik. His thicket of business interests could pose conflicts. He's been divorced twice.

"I sure have strengths and weaknesses," Giuliani said recently. "I think that sort of puts me in the same category as just about everybody else that's running. Are my strengths greater or my weaknesses worse? I don't know. You have to sort of examine that. That won't be the issue."

His challenge will be to remind voters of his take-charge attitude on Sept. 11 and his two-term mayoral reign, at the same time his main rivals - Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney - no doubt will try to exploit his background and record. For now, both are trying to gauge how much of a threat he may be.

Political baggage vs. 9/11
Giuliani, who formed a presidential exploratory committee last year, is betting that the Republican rank-and-file will look past his liabilities. His aides dismiss skeptics who say he has too many flaws to win over primary voters a year from now.

"I believe they'll look at the picture as a whole," said Tony Carbonetti, Giuliani's longtime political adviser. "This (New York) was an unmanageable city, and I think what people want today is a manager, someone to lead in difficult times and to lead in not-difficult times.

"We're going to continue to tell that story," he said.

Before Sept. 11, Giuliani was known as the hard-charging prosecutor-turned-politician who cleaned up Times Square, led the city out of fiscal despair and brought Republican rule back to the liberal mecca.

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Giuliani, of course, made enemies in the process, but on Sept. 11 even his chronic critics were muted when he took charge amid the rubble of the World Trade Center's twin towers. To many, he became a picture of strength, a reminder of the resilience of the American spirit.

"He has a connection to that. He is unique. On the other hand you look at the politics and you say this is a problem," said Alex Vogel, a Republican strategist in Washington who is not affiliated with any presidential candidate.

"The question is: Can you win a Republican primary a different way? History keeps saying no. But history has never presented us with someone whose favorability numbers are as high as Rudy's."

Indeed, national polls have consistently shown him leading for the GOP nomination, and early surveys in key states show him ahead or competitive. He travels to one important state, New Hampshire, this weekend where he will give the keynote address at the state GOP's annual meeting.

For all the hype since 2001, Giuliani didn't start preparing for a presidential run in earnest until after November's elections. Thus, he has lagged behind McCain and Romney in courting fundraisers, setting up a national organization and hiring ground operatives in key states, although he has made progress on all fronts recently.

Giuliani's aides insist they're making strides toward filling out his campaign. They say he can raise the $80 million to $100 million necessary this year for a serious run. Name recognition, obviously, isn't an issue.

Neither, his supporters argue, is likability. They say he appeals to people across the political spectrum and in every region of the country, meaning he could expand the general election playing field. That, his backers say, makes him the Republican most likely to beat the presumptive Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Perhaps.

Liberal leanings
But first he has to capture the GOP nomination - and the big question is whether he can win over enough Republicans in states like Iowa and South Carolina, among the first nominating contests where voters are solid conservatives and could be turned off by his stance on social issues.

"Giuliani is going to have to convince people that he's more conservative than his record otherwise would suggest," said Peverill Squire, who teaches politics at the University of Iowa.

The former mayor's support for abortion rights, gay rights and gun control conflict with the hard-line positions of the GOP's right. His supporters say he's not as liberal on those issues as he's made out to be. Still, he's from New York - and that alone rankles the party's conservative wing.

Despite that, Giuliani's backers contend - and some Republican strategists agree - that he could get support from fiscal conservatives because of his record of cutting taxes, curbing spending and promoting small government, particularly now when the base is smarting over the soaring federal deficit under Republicans.

And, with the country still at war, his link to Sept. 11 - the brand of a strong leader - could trump the base's concerns about his background and stand on social issues.

"Giuliani's national security credentials will allow him to span ideological divides in the Republican Party and win conservative votes," said Greg Strimple, a GOP strategist in New York who is neutral in the race.

Adding up the voters
Unknown is whether Giuliani can woo enough of those base Republican voters to win the nomination and, if not, whether he can make up the difference by attracting independents and Democrats.

"His opening could come if people really think that somebody like Hillary is running away with it, and if there's a perception that only Giuliani can beat her," said John Truscott, an unaffiliated Republican strategist in Michigan.

Another factor that could help Giuliani is how the primary calendar shakes out.

New Hampshire and Michigan hold early contests, and New Jersey, California, Illinois, Florida and other states viewed as more hospitable to a moderate may schedule their votes earlier in the year, perhaps lessening the importance of a strong showing for Giuliani in Iowa and South Carolina.

For all the obstacles, even folks with ties to Giuliani's opponents can't deny that the New Yorker has a shot.

Said Ken Khachigian of California, who served as a strategist for President Reagan and was with McCain in 2000: "I would never sell Giuliani short."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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