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The man who isn't there

Can conservative Republicans take former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani seriously as a presidential contender? Not only can they, but they do – as interviews with several activists here at the Southern Republican Leadership conference in Memphis confirmed. By Tom Curry
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani addresses the evening session of the 2004 Republican National Convention
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is a no-show at this weekend's Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis.Gary Hershorn / Reuters file

Can conservative Republicans take former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani seriously as a presidential contender?

Not only can they, but they do – as interviews with several activists here at the Southern Republican Leadership conference in Memphis confirmed.

The man who wasn’t here in Memphis was still on the delegates’ minds. And his views on such issues as gay rights – decidedly more liberal than those of most Republicans – do not seem to be an insurmountable hurdle for GOP activists here.

Spencer Garrett, a Navy veteran, an entrepreneur and a business teacher at University of Southern Mississippi, said he wasn’t yet committed to any GOP contender for 2008 but, “I’m probably going to go with one of the superstars, either (Sen. John) McCain or Giuliani, because $100 million is what you’re going to need to raise to beat Hillary Clinton. And I don’t think the lesser-known officials will be able to do that in a hurry.”

“We’re looking for results,” Garrett said, indicating that he considered it a strike against Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney that he hadn’t been able to stop same-sex marriage in his state.

Garrett contrasted this with Giuliani. “I was in New York in 1991 for the Gulf War victory parade. New York City was a scary, scary place. Then I was in New York in 2000 and my job had me on the subways at midnight.” And tongue in cheek, he added, “It was, like, ‘Gotham has lost its charm; you can’t be scared on the subways at midnight. I think most of the people in the country recognize the work he did in New York. New York is like California – it’s an important place for the whole country even if you don’t live there. You can’t afford for that place to be in bad shape.”

Giuliani served as mayor from 1994 to 2002.

“Giuliani still has a strong 9/11 tie,” said Russell Riley, who runs a bottled water firm in Germantown, Tenn., who was standing next to Garrett. “He was a leader on 9-11. People are going to remember that and I think he’ll be a good money raiser.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the candidate,” Garrett added. “Everybody in the South is impressed by the guy. I know that those social issues sometimes come up. But people understand he operates in New York City, which isn’t Biloxi. My understanding is that he’s not personally pro-abortion rights, but he’s politically in New York and that’s a non-issue in New York City.”

Asked whether Giuliani was too much of the fast-talking Yankee to play well in Southern prairies, Martha Branson, chairwoman of the Jones County Republican Party in Macon, Ga. laughed and said, “Oh no, we can teach him to like grits.”

She said she might not agree with Giuliani on abortion or gay rights or immigration but “through discussion we could have a meeting of the minds.”

Debbie Love, a party volunteer from Knoxville Tenn., had just finished talking about Ronald Reagan as the Great Communicator when I asked her about Giuliani. “Oh, there’s no doubt. He’s a good communicator,” she said.

“So why’s he not here?” asked her husband Steve. “It’s not unintentional that he’s not here. So that makes you say, ‘Hmmm.’ Politics is all about timing and you can peak too soon. You can go and win Iowa and all of sudden comes the dark horse. Maybe he doesn’t want to run. But we’re assuming he does, and maybe he doesn’t want to make the timing go too quickly.”

Pining for another Reagan
Ronald Reagan remains the ultimate hero for many of the Republicans here. And if Giuliani runs, it may be helpful that he can credibly claim to be a Ronald Reagan Republican – after all, he was the number three man in the Justice Department in the first years of Reagan’s presidency, but he’s also a Mario Cuomo man: he backed liberal Democrat Cuomo’s re-election bid for governor of New York in 1994, in what turned out to be a glaring case of bad timing. Giuliani didn’t reckon on 1994 being a wave year for Republicans as George Pataki beat Cuomo.

As most of the delegates we interviewed knew – but only in haziest fashion – Giuliani has a record of being pro-choice on abortion and favorable to gay rights.

He spoke sympathetically of illegal aliens living in New York and argued in 1996 that there are times when illegal immigrants “must have a substantial degree of protection,” which is at odds with the “secure our borders” rhetoric heard here in Memphis from Sen. George Allen and other GOP leaders.

While some of the grass-roots activists such as Garrett were keen on Giuliani, the elected officials -- some of whom might end up as his rivals in the GOP primaries -- voiced equivocal feelings about the ex-mayor.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is actively campaigning here in Memphis and gave a speech to the gathering Saturday, said Giuliani is “a very dynamic and charismatic guy, and I like him a lot personally. The difficulty would be when folks drill down deep into the issues on same-sex marriage and abortion and issues that are really going to be tough. Also the Second Amendment issue is one that in the South is a sacred issue.”

New York City has stringent laws limiting gun ownership.

Giuliani would “either have to explain very carefully or modify some positions to be palatable to a lot of folks in the South,” Huckabee said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., a McCain ally, said, “If Rudy were here, he would be well received. People like Rudy Giuliani, they respect him, he’s the nation’s mayor. How he would fare when it came to an issue discussion, I don’t know. I don’t know how he would shake out on the issues on the social side…. Once you engage in a political contest, then issues begin to trump other things.”