One of the most common topics of political conversation these days is "what in the world is going on in the fight for the Republican presidential nomination?" Recent polls show that the lead for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- the guy that all these insiders and political "experts," myself included, say couldn't win the nomination if he were unopposed -- is widening, while his two current chief rivals for the nomination, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have taken on a good bit of water in recent weeks.
In last week's ABC News/Washington Post poll, Giuliani's lead over second-place McCain, which was 8 points in December and 7 points in January, has ballooned to 23 points, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose hat is not yet in the ring, has bounced from 12 percent to 9 percent to 15 percent, with Romney fluctuating from 5 percent to 9 percent to 4 percent. Only Giuliani can brag about those numbers, and his backers can legitimately throw them in the faces of critics who have consistently scoffed at his chances of prevailing.
The insiders' and establishment's argument, put very simply, is that just as liberal political parties do not nominate conservatives, conservative parties do not nominate liberals, and that someone with an established record of being pro-choice on abortion rights and supportive of gun control and gay rights is not likely to win the GOP nomination. The argument continues that while cultural conservatives might not be able to anoint a Republican presidential nominee, they certainly can veto one, and that hitting the cultural trifecta of abortion, guns and gays is a non-starter.
The Giuliani camp's retort is that people certainly seem to be taking potshots at the former mayor, but his numbers have only gone up. At this point in history, his backers could argue, Americans care more about strong leadership and that a president's views on such cultural issues are not equally important in the minds of most voters. This election, they say, will be fought in a different venue than cultural issues.
There is no question that we are at a curious point, and that the long-dominant Republicans are a bit disoriented right now. That same ABC/Post poll, conducted Feb. 22 to 25 among 1,082 adults with a 3-point error margin, showed that 86 percent of Democrats are satisfied with their choices of presidential candidates in 2008, compared with 73 percent of Republicans.
Twelve percent of Democrats are dissatisfied, whereas 24 percent of Republicans are, and 29 percent of Democrats are very satisfied, compared to 14 percent of Republicans. There is no question that the war in Iraq has disheartened many GOP voters, scandals have contributed further to this malaise in the party and high levels of federal spending and budget deficits have further demoralized others.
One would have to go back to the Watergate scandal and its aftermath to find a time when Republicans seemed to be as disillusioned as they are today.
But are Republican voters letting out a primal scream for help and willing to embrace a candidate whose social-issue positions are anathema to many of the party's core voters and activists?
Consider a contrast between the two front-runners for their respective party's nomination. A strong argument can be made that the shortcomings and vulnerabilities of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., are well known to virtually all; on Wall Street, they would say her numbers have already been discounted for her negatives. Over the last 15 years, Clinton has been loudly accused of just about everything short of murder, so what new and derogatory thing could anyone say or write now that would change minds?
For Giuliani, the story is quite different. A cursory glance at not just Giuliani's stands on social and cultural issues, but also his complicated marital and personal life and the circumstances around his ability to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam War reveal ominous warning signals.
In a Jan. 5 through 7 Gallup poll of 407 Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP, 17 percent knew that Giuliani favored civil unions for same-sex couples, 8 percent thought he opposed them and 75 percent were unsure. Sixteen percent incorrectly thought that he was anti-abortion, 20 percent knew he was pro-abortion rights and 64 percent were unsure. When told that Giuliani actually supported civil unions and was pro-choice, 13 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said they were more likely to support him, 25 percent said they were less likely and 18 percent ruled him out completely. The poll had a 6-point error margin.
A sizeable 41 percent in the poll said those views would not affect their decision. But that was still less than the 43 percent of Republicans either ruling him out or less likely to support him. And that is before discussing his support for gun control measures while he was mayor of New York City or mentioning that the first of his three marriages was to his second cousin and that one wife found out from a televised news conference that he was leaving her.
The list could go on and on. Can he still win the GOP nomination? My guess remains no.