Twice divorced, pro-choice, pro-gun control, and pro-gay rights…Does this sound like a successful Republican running for office? Former mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani has a history of being all three. Yet he’s the frontrunner in a Republican primary campaign that has started little more than two years into President Bush’s second term.
“[Giuliani] produced the eight most consecutive years of successful conservative governance in the 20th century in America,” said conservative columnist George Will as he introduced “America’s mayor” to the Conservative Political Action Conference in March. Ravenous applause accompanied Will’s assertion that under Giuliani, New York's welfare rolls dropped by 600,000.
But other parts of Giuliani’s past may be catching up to him. His conservative opponent in the 1993 New York mayoral race, George Marlin, called him a “lifelong liberal” in The Politico. He notes that Giuliani ran for mayor as a “liberal Republican” and criticized 1994 gubernatorial candidate George Pataki for wanting to enact an "irresponsible" 25 percent state income tax cut.
The difference between conservative camps on Giuliani appears minimal in national opinion polls among Republican voters, with Giuliani leading by at least 10 percent among all the candidates. But with a mixed record on conservative the issues, why is he so far ahead? Does he stand a chance to win the nomination?
“My guess about Giuliani is that most people don't have a clear sense of what he stands for ... just that he's one of the "heroes" of 9/11,” John Sharpless, a UW-Madison historian and former congressional candidate, said in an email.
Giuliani has a lot of “vague positives” without much substance, Sharpless said. Voters think that he is a “nice guy.”
A Newsweek poll puts Giuliani with a 25 percent lead in a one-on-one match up with rival Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and a 50 percent lead over former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney. Other statistics back up Sharpless’s assertion that many Republican voters have false perceptions on where Giuliani stands.
The same poll, conducted at the end of February, notes that 85 percent didn’t know that Giuliani has opposed an amendment banning gay marriage. Of 1,202 Republican voters, 62 percent didn’t know that he is pro-choice and 81 percent didn’t know that has favored gun control laws.
Giuliani has had success in lowering crime and creating better economic environment in New York, which slightly contributes to his image as an effective leader, said Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison political scientist and statistician.
The New York Times reported that the number of murders dropped from 1,946 in 1993 to 714 in 2001, a 63 percent drop during Giuliani’s two terms. Giuliani also cut taxes by $2.5 billion and turned a $2.3 billion budget deficit into a budget surplus.
But Franklin said that most voters do not consider this.
“It’s hard to underestimate the lack of knowledge that people have about politicians.” he said. “What do ordinary citizens in Kansas know about crime in New York?”
Franklin agrees with Sharpless that Giuliani’s largest advantage is his image as a “Churchillian figure” post Sept. 11. A well-known personality goes a long way, and this is even more important given the lack of a “strong conservative” candidates.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, consistently vote conservative, Franklin said. But they are seen as far too divisive, while Romney is seen as too liberal.
“Conservative talk radio consistently vilifies two politicians: Hillary Clinton and John McCain,” Franklin said. “McCain continues to nosedive.”
Evangelical churches and pro-life groups have cast McCain into flames because of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act, Franklin said, with more limits on electioneering. Other thorns in conservative sides are McCain’s opposition to the use of torture and his compromise with Senate Democrats over the ability to filibuster judicial nominees.
While the leading contenders are still in Giuliani’s shadow, Franklin sees former senator Fred Thompson as a less controversial, but consistently conservative candidate coming up the ranks. Thompson garnered 17 percent to McCain’s 22 percent and Giuliani’s 33 percent in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll held last month.
“Thompson hasn’t even started running yet and he’s showing potential in the polls, Franklin said, noting that he would likely take conservative votes from McCain.
Giuliani, meanwhile, has changed his rhetoric to be more with conservative Republicans on some issues. He blasted New Hampshire’s new civil union law for “going to far,” as it “states same sex civil unions are the equivalent of marriage and recognizes same sex unions from outside states.”
On gun control, his campaign Web site says “Rudy understands that what works in New York doesn’t necessarily work in Mississippi or Montana.” Under Mayor Giuliani, New York became the first city in New York State to file a lawsuit against the gun industry.
As American voters learn more about Giuliani’s positions, the conservative credentials of challengers may be his downfall. But up until now, few people seem to be noticing as he leads the pack. Those who do notice, have to consider how much value they attribute to “liberal stances” on abortion rights, gay rights, and gun control.
“The question is, do you need someone who is 100 percent on these issues, or someone who reaches a threshold?” asked Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, in Newsweek. “[Giuliani] wouldn’t be polling so well if he wasn’t coming close to a certain threshold.”