If all of those issues weren’t enough, there’s also Rudy’s temper. Sooner or later, Giuliani will have to endure scrutiny—and lots of it—on issues he doesn’t want to talk about. September 11 may well have mellowed Rudy (friends insist it genuinely has), but it remains to be seen if he can avoid being baited into exhibiting the kind of behavior that once made Jimmy Breslin call him “a small man in search of a balcony.” Maybe not. In California, I asked Giuliani if he has, in fact, softened. He laughed dismissively, then said, “Is there a mellower version of me? I don’t know. Other people are a much better judge of what versions there are of me. I am who I am.”
When you see Rudy and Judi together, it’s clear the couple is in love (a point they may have made too forcefully in an over-the-top March Harper’s Bazaar photo spread). And while some people see Judi as too slick for Middle America to embrace, others say she softens him. Regardless, the Judi game is tricky. One way or another, seeing her reminds people of the infamous Donna Hanover affair (Rudy informed the mother of his two children that he was divorcing her via press conference), not to mention the fact that Rudy’s first marriage was annulled on the grounds that he unwittingly married his second cousin (his defense was that he thought she was his third cousin).
Even 9/11, Rudy’s alleged magic bullet, could prove problematic. At some point, Rudy will inevitably air ads featuring heroic shots of him at ground zero with a voice-over that sounds something like, “On America’s darkest day, one man stood tall.” But overplaying 9/11 in any way is not without peril. “With most presidents, there’s a modesty to their heroism,” says Brown University historian and former Clinton speechwriter Ted Widmer. “George H.W. Bush was a war hero, but he didn’t talk about it. Eisenhower never used it. You have to be careful not to overinflate it.”
Or September 11 could simply lose its power. Right now, 9/11 is about all most voters know about Giuliani. “He’s like McCain in 2000,” says Mark McKinnon, the former George W. Bush consultant who is now working with McCain. “He’s a vessel people are pouring things into.” But in time, that could change. “Giuliani has legions of fans in the Republican Party, including President Bush, John McCain, and me,” McKinnon is careful to note. “But I think the traditional physics of a presidential Republican primary will be difficult.” That’s a savvy political pro’s way of saying his opponent will get creamed when the press starts looking more closely at him. Then again, McKinnon allows, “Conventional wisdom could go out the door, and the celebrity Rudy justly deserves will allow him to soar above the usual fray, and he’ll be president.”
In the end, of course, elections are about matchups. Right now, Romney, mired in single digits, is not a factor, which means the bid for the Republican nomination for the moment appears to be a two-man race: Giuliani vs. McCain.
In certain respects, Rudy measures up well in that fight. Yes, the two men hold essentially the same position on Iraq. The difference is that Giuliani is linked with Bush at ground zero in all the macho swaggering ways. McCain is linked to Bush as a bumbling quagmire creator. McCain may have conducted the war better if he had been president and he may have been an articulate critic of the Bush-Rummy fiasco, but voters see him as part of the problem, not part of the solution (assuming a solution exists). To them, McCain is a Washington insider walking lockstep with a hugely unpopular president. For the time being, anyway, Giuliani gets the 9/11 free pass.
In the battle for the hearts and minds of the religious right and social conservatives, neither Rudy nor McCain will ever be accused of being a movement conservative. In 2000, McCain called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance” for their role in smearing him in South Carolina. He’s since made peace with both men, and even spoke at Falwell’s Liberty University. Last week, McCain announced that as president he would support the repeal of Roe v. Wade. The move was viewed by some observers as the senator’s first direct reaction to Giuliani, an explicit statement to the Christian right that he is on their side while Rudy, despite his constructionist-judges talk, is still officially pro-choice. Still, true believers can carry a grudge, and they’ve never liked McCain. And Rudy can play the 9/11-crusader angle to try to counter his morally wayward ways.
In the end, however, McCain may have the more meaningful advantages. Not only do his fund-raising and campaign operations compare favorably with Giuliani’s, but McCain has done this before. He’s also got a heroic story of his own, and he can clobber Rudy on the experience issue (four-term senator, ranking member of the Armed Services committee, champion of campaign-finance reform).