On most issues, his spiel doesn’t sound that different from those of McCain and Romney. But there’s one exception. Over and over again, wherever he goes, America’s Mayor evokes 9/11. And over and over again, wherever he goes, people cheer. Whenever Rudy talks about anything other than the September 11 terror attacks, he’s just another Republican presidential hopeful with his particular set of strengths and weaknesses. When he talks about 9/11, he becomes something else: a national hero.
New Yorkers may find that hard to believe. Anyone who lived here at the time remembers the 9/10 Rudy: strong on crime and the economy, yes, but arrogant, bullying, and terrible on race and civil rights. And while it’s impossible not to respect what Giuliani did for the city on 9/11 and in the days afterward, New Yorkers have experienced an inevitable September 11 fatigue. The 9/11 story has been told so many times that the Rudy-as-hero narrative, however moving, has lost much of its power. Except for those who have a personal connection to the tragedy, people have generally moved on. Besides, it’s common knowledge that a pro-choice, pro-gun-control, pro-gay-rights, thrice-married Catholic northeastern Republican is unelectable, right?
The rest of America sees a far different Rudy. West of the Hudson, the 9/10 Rudy doesn’t exist and never did. For them, September 11 was never so much a real day as a distant televised drama. It has more symbolic meaning than actual meaning: It’s equal parts Pearl Harbor and resurrection. And guess who plays the role of national savior? Not George Bush. Not John McCain. Not Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
Once the rest of the country sees Giuliani up close, the conventional New York wisdom once held, his campaign will surely fold. So far, exactly the opposite has happened. The more Rudy has put himself out there, the higher his numbers have climbed. Last week, a CBS poll showed Giuliani leading McCain by a whopping 21 points while a Quinnipiac survey found Giuliani running five points ahead of Hillary nationally, and dead even in blue states.
Yes, Rudy is the new horse in the race and thus, for now, the most compelling. Much of his popularity comes from the fact that he’s entered the race just as McCain’s ties to George Bush’s Iraq policy threaten to render his once inevitable nomination stillborn. At the same time, an idea has taken root that the 70-year-old Arizona senator, cancer survivor, and former POW, who would be the oldest person ever elected president, won’t be up to the job.
Giuliani’s pro-war stance and his moderate social-issue positions may yet bury him. So could a lack of money, a green campaign staff, his thin political résumé, his trifecta of marriages, and, not least of all, the fact that the 9/11 card, however powerful it is, could simply prove too flimsy to carry him all the way to the White House. With 21 months to go before Election Day, there’s still more than enough time for McCain to reassert himself—or any number of other scenarios to play out that don’t involve Giuliani’s becoming president. Still, no Republican presidential candidate in modern history has held this big a lead a year out and not scored the GOP nomination.
Believe it or not, America’s Mayor could be America’s next president.
I t’s nine below zero in Bretton Woods, deep in New Hampshire’s North Country. The snow crackles under a cavalcade of SUVs creeping up the driveway of the mammoth Mount Washington Hotel. The hotel once hosted FDR for a pivotal 1944 conference on postwar monetary policy. Now here’s Rudy speaking at the Littleton Chamber of Commerce’s annual supper. It makes sense, of course. New Hampshire still holds the nation’s first primary, and Rudy needs to test his material way, way out of town. On this, Giuliani’s first ’07 trip to the state, he has his third wife, Judi, in tow. The would-be First Couple looks a bit mismatched as they say hello to a pack of Girl Scouts stationed near the door selling cookies. Judi is all glamour in pearls and a black turtleneck. Rudy is in need of an ear-hair trimmer. But Giuliani proves he’s no George Bush the Elder—he whips out a fist-size wad of cash and gives the girls $80 for $70 worth of cookies.
September 11 comes up even faster than Rudy could have expected. One of the scouts tells Giuliani that she lost a cousin that day. Rudy smiles a bit and touches her on the shoulder while Judi gives her a hug. The girl asks how the mayor made it through that day. “With the help of loved ones,” he replies. The little girl smiles. Afterward, I ask the girl what her cousin’s name was. “I don’t know, I never met him,” she says. By now, another blonde girl, maybe 11, is tugging on the mayor’s sleeve. “You’ve been my hero since 9/11.”