His national poll numbers are a dream, he's a major box office draw on the Republican Party circuit, and he goes by the shorthand title "America's Mayor." All of which has former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani convinced he just might become America's president in 2008.
He is showing the early signs of a serious candidacy: Giuliani's presidential exploratory committee throws its first major fundraiser in a hotel near Times Square on Tuesday evening, and he recently hired the political director of the Republican National Committee during 2006. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found that Republicans give Giuliani an early lead over Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is far ahead of the former mayor in organizing a national campaign.
Despite that lead, conservative party strategists and activists in key primary states are skeptical and warn that the socially liberal Republican faces a difficult campaign. They question whether a Republican who has had one marriage end in annulment and another in divorce, and favors abortion rights, gun control and immigrant rights, has much retail appeal in the evangelical and deeply conservative reaches of the GOP.
"If the Republican Party wants to send the social conservatives home for good, all they have to do is nominate Rudy Giuliani," said Rick Scarborough, a Southern Baptist minister and president of Vision America. "It's an insult to the pro-Christian agenda. . . . He's going to spend a lot of money finding he can't get out of the Republican primaries."
Giuliani is reticent about how he would overcome these obstacles -- he declined to be interviewed before the fundraisers, which are closed to the news media. But members of his intensely loyal inner circle said they expect him to run and campaign aggressively.
A Reagan-like figure?
His strategy will be to capitalize on his status as a tough and plain-talking hero of Sept. 11, 2001. He believes, say advisers, that his tough views on national security -- he supports the USA Patriot Act -- and on Iraq, where he opposes withdrawal of troops, will overshadow his liberal social views. He will frame some of those positions as libertarian -- government has no business interfering in the bedroom.
Many Republicans say no. The party has grown steadily disenchanted with liberal members of the party, and it was Republican moderates in the Northeast who suffered many losses in last month's elections.
"For us to nominate him, we have to say those issues are not really important to us [and] we care more about winning regardless of the philosophy of our candidate," GOP consultant Curt Anderson said. "I don't believe that a majority of Republican primary voters will make that choice."
But in a measure of the party's divisions, other Republicans, such as California financier Bill Simon and talk show host Dennis Prager, say his social liberalism is of less concern. They are among a group of conservative activists who see in Giuliani a Reagan-like figure, sometimes wrong but possessed of unshakable conservative beliefs.
They also see a Republican Party that must establish a beachhead in Blue State America.
"Republicans do understand it is political suicide to keep this red-state, blue-state thing going any longer," said Barry Wynn, former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and a recruit to Giuliani's banner. "We need someone competitive in all 50 states."
Giuliani, 62, presents an unusual figure in recent political history. His coolness after the Sept. 11 attacks, and his eloquence about that loss, rendered him that rare mayor who could step onto the national political stage. He has a core of socially liberal positions -- he also supports domestic partnerships for same-sex couples, although not marriage -- but wraps it in a hide as tough as any conservative Republican.
He's a crime fighter and a tax and welfare cutter. He campaigned for George W. Bush in 2000 and staked out unyielding positions on Iraq -- he said recently that withdrawing soon from Iraq "would be a terrible mistake." He also disputed the recent findings of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan commission of elder statesmen, that concluded that untangling the Israeli-Palestinian knot is central to achieving a broader Middle East peace.
Giuliani, who was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, is an intensely disciplined candidate. In his mayoral campaigns, he appealed to white Democrats, Catholics and Jews, while drawing substantial votes from Latinos. (He was far less attractive to African Americans, whose young men bore the brunt of his controversial anti-crime tactics and whose leaders rarely stepped inside the mayor's inner circle.)
'The unquestioned hero'
Whether he can extend that appeal in a national campaign will be the biggest test that Giuliani faces.
And tactically, the shape of Giuliani's campaign depends on forces outside his control. If, for example, New Jersey successfully pushes its primary day ahead of South Carolina on the calendar, and if he wins in New Hampshire, Giuliani could gain momentum.
"If they put the Northern states early, he becomes formidable because he's the unquestioned hero in the first shot of the war on terror," said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic consultant. "If I'm a Republican consultant, I wait until the Southern primaries and blow him up on social issues: the he divorce, the annulment, posing in drag at the party at City Hall."
Republican operatives caution that Giuliani is far behind in the "talent primary" -- the back-stage battle for sought-after campaign staffers. McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) have so far dominated this inside but important game.
Giuliani has pressed his case in South Carolina, hoping to lay claim to that party's evangelical heart. Wynn, the former state chairman, and Warren Tompkins, the well-respected South Carolina consultant, flew up to have lunch with the former mayor in New York in the spring. Wynn left a Giuliani man; Tompkins signed on with Romney.
Giuliani made two visits to Iowa in 2006 -- spending Election Day stumping with Jim Nussle, the party's nominee for governor. But his inroads are few among social conservatives. Steve Scheffler, the head of the Iowa Christian Alliance, said Giuliani had yet to reach out to him. Scheffler takes a skeptic's view of the former mayor, noting that between 70 and 75 percent of Republican caucus voters in 2008 will be "pro-life and pro-marriage."
Some Republicans in Washington speculate that Giuliani is but dipping his toe in presidential waters. Others privately advise him to return to his lucrative consulting practice.
Others who know him say to keep watching.
"He's been running seriously for a year and a half," said Fred Siegel, a historian at Cooper Union who briefly advised Giuliani years ago and who later wrote "The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life."
"He's a competent wonk with a very hard edge, and that could make him formidable if the primaries break right."
Cillizza reported from Washington.