The hardest candidacy to figure out of either party's presidential front-runners is that of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R).
Giuliani has shown simultaneous strength (in the polls) and weakness (slow on the staffing front) in these early stages of the primary race. It seems his interest in a presidential campaign fluctuates by the hour.
As someone who, at times, has been dismissive of the likelihood that Giuliani can win the GOP nod, I have found myself reconsidering that possibility after watching the ideological torture being inflicted on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R).
As our biweekly White House rankings indicate, I believe Arizona Sen. John McCain is the GOP front-runner, because he is showing strength in finances, organization and the polls. And then there's the history: The GOP has nominated its second-place finisher from the previous primary battle in three of the last four contested nomination fights (1980, 1988 and 1996).
Still, it seems that the Republican Party has an opening for a conservative alternative to fill. National Review's Kate O'Beirne believes the GOP always ends up nominating the most "electable conservative" -- not just someone perceived as the "most electable" (e.g., McCain). But lately, Romney has become the candidate attempting to carve out the "electable conservative" niche with what some might label "born-again conservatism."
For Romney, this move has caused all sorts of grief because he's had to deal with Massachusetts-style flip-flopping charges. It's one thing to evolve ideologically from, say, a 1994 Senate race, but the current issue of the Weekly Standard detailing Romney's "conversion" on abortion since 2002 seems like a bit too quick of a move for some to take as genuine. Indeed, he's taking hits from Republican contenders both to the right and left of him; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback publicly question this allegedly campaign-inspired conversion, while McCain's friends quickly play up the convictions contrast.
If Romney can survive this squeeze over the next six months without enduring too many blows to his candidacy, then it's possible he could upset McCain. In person, Romney may be the single most talented pure politician of either party right now. In fact, some Democrats worry privately more about Romney than McCain, because they fear he is a Republican Bill Clinton -- that he's impossible to pigeon-hole ideologically.
But the Standard piece, coupled with doubts already brewing about Romney, could simply be too much to overcome. Enter Giuliani.
Unlike Romney, he isn't attempting to switch his stances on some key litmus-test issues. Instead, he's trying the "let's focus on what we agree on" approach. This works for live audiences. For pundits and activists, there are still doubts. But while Romney's candidacy takes on water, Giuliani's positioning is suddenly looking workable.
I've spoken to a number of conservative activists who seem more comfortable with Giuliani than McCain because they get the impression he won't "stick his liberal finger in your eye," as one told me. Giuliani preaches leadership and security, which some in the base value more than even some of the key litmus-test issues (or so they claim until McCain's name comes up). And Giuliani speaks in a very optimistic tone (as does Romney), which contrasts even more with McCain, whose "straight talk" comes across as too gloomy to some.
Giuliani's biggest problem right now is convincing the establishment that he's serious about running. More than one New York Republican has pointed out that the former mayor never seemed to have his heart in his 2000 Senate race, even before he was diagnosed with cancer. Both McCain and Romney have been taking advantage of this doubt in securing key donors and staff.
And what about the small, hand-to-hand campaigning that is so necessary in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina? As a motivational speaker, Giuliani is very gifted, but can he close the sale on a personal basis? How will he handle negative attacks? How will he handle difficult times like the ones Romney's going through right now? Still, it seems that if there's a time for Giuliani to give it a shot, it's now.
As I've noted in a previous column, there is a constituency of conservatives who will support a serious alternative to McCain. Romney's decided he needs simply to talk these folks into believing he's now one of them. Giuliani appears to be attempting to convince these anti-McCain folks that he won't cause them new pain if he's the party's standard-bearer. Six months ago, it seemed Romney's way was the smartest. Right now, I'm not so sure.
These folks are also pragmatists (something McCain's counting on, too, actually), and they aren't going to climb aboard a perceived lost cause, which is why neither Huckabee nor Brownback is gaining serious traction yet. (Quick aside: What if Huckabee had played the national establishment GOP game sooner; would he be in the top tier already?). Many seem to be waiting to see who can handle this tightrope walk better, Romney or Giuliani.
If Romney can't weather this storm of criticism, and Giuliani doesn't run or conservatives decide he's just too liberal, McCain will probably cruise to the nomination. Sure, there could be a Newt Gingrich boomlet or a draft campaign (think Jeb "Don't Call Me" Bush, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour or former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson), but Republicans may not want to draw the process out any further. McCain is plodding along in a very organized and workmanlike manner, like George W. Bush in 1999 and Bob Dole in 1995. If neither of the big-name alternatives pan out, don't expect the Republicans to roll the dice on someone they just don't know. It's not in their DNA. That's a gene that pervades Democrats.