The first time the question came Thursday night, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani dodged it.
Asked about abortion, the closest thing to an immutable litmus test for core Republican voters, Giuliani at first avoided saying what is well-known among Republican opponents of his presidential campaign: that he supports abortion rights.
Giuliani ticked off the initiatives he undertook as mayor to reduce abortions in New York and concluded, “I support the Hyde amendment,” the 1976 congressional measure that excludes abortion from the health care services funded by Medicaid.
But the second time the question came around at the first Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, he did not flinch.
“In my case, I hate abortion,” Giuliani said. “... But ultimately, because it is an issue of conscience, I would respect a woman’s right to make a different choice.”
In fact, Giuliani even went so far as to add that “it would be OK” for the Supreme Court to uphold the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide.
And with that, Giuliani, who is leading the early polls in the 2008 Republican campaign, embraced what sets him starkly apart from the rest of the field: his unorthodox positions on social issues that motivate many of the party’s most loyal voters: abortion rights, same-sex marriage and federally funded research on embryonic stem cells.
Sharp disagreement from rivals
The nine others in the field sharply disagreed, calling on the Supreme Court to overturn its 1973 abortion decision. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a leading figure among conservative Christian voters, said it would be a “glorious day of human liberty and freedom” if the court ever did so.
So far, those positions have not torpedoed Giuliani’s candidacy. A poll released Thursday by Quinnipiac University showed Giuliani leading former Sen. John McCain of Arizona by 27 percent to 19 percent. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney trailed with 8 percent.
Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Giuliani had leeway to take such positions because of the high regard Republicans placed on his national security credentials.
“No candidate is perfect in any race, and I think what we are seeing is Rudy Giuliani is leading because of the strength with which he led New York City after 9/11,” Martinez told NBC News’ Tim Russert.
Aides said that by taking so stark a position before an audience of Republicans, Giuliani hoped to get out in front of the issue and establish an image of a steadfast leader unconcerned with political fashion or public shifts of opinion.
Romney tries to explain shift
That allowed him to draw a sharp contrast with Romney, one of his leading rivals in the early going, who has switched his stances on same-sex marriage and abortion rights, which he advocated during his single term as governor of liberal Massachusetts during the 1990s.
Romney did not duck the question, saying that “I’ve always been personally pro-life” but that when he ran for governor, “I said I would enforce the law, which was effectively a pro-choice position.”
But Romney said his opinion changed when Massachusetts was considering legislation to approve research on embryonic stem cells, which are destroyed in the process. As he studied the issue, he said, “I changed my mind. I decided I was wrong.”
“I’m proud of that, and I won’t apologize to anyone for becoming pro-life,” he said.
Although he did not get the chance, aides said Romney was ready for the question and went into the debate prepared to invoke the memory of Reagan, who signed a bill legalizing abortion as governor of California before evolving into a fierce opponent during his 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns. That might have been a powerful statement with Reagan’s widow, Nancy, sitting in the audience.
“He’s taken a very close look at these issues and said: ‘You know what? I really am closer to being a traditional candidate. I really do support traditional marriage,’ ” Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., an adviser to the campaign, told NBC News’ Russert.
The back-and-forth did give some of the lesser-known candidates a chance to stake out the traditional conservative ground on abortion as they sought to raise their profiles in the crowded field.
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore took an oblique shot at Romney, saying that he opposed abortion and that “that is a position that hasn’t changed in my life.”
But it was Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado who crystallized what Giuliani is up against as he seeks the nomination of a party that has made opposition to abortion a central part of its platform for many decades.
“The right to kill another person is not a right that I would agree with and support,” he said.