But let’s say Iraq continues to implode, and McCain proves too tarnished by his association with Bush to survive the fallout. No other credible candidate emerges, and Rudy somehow convinces Republican America that his handling of 9/11 and his stewardship of the country’s bluest city qualify him to be their candidate for the highest office in the land. Let’s say Rudy wins the nomination. Then what?
Conventional wisdom suggests if a Democrat can’t get elected president in 2008, the whole party should just pack it in. Still, Rudy creates problems for all three of the current front-runners. His weakness in the primaries—his centrism—would become a strength in a general election (and he’d only tack further to the middle at that point). Rudy’s lack of experience would be mitigated by Hillary’s, Obama’s, and Edwards’s own relatively thin political résumés (leaving aside her time as First Lady, Hillary’s got just six years as a senator, while Edwards has only one term, and Obama is in his first term). In some ways, all four candidates are running on image as much as anything. And Rudy’s 9/11 pitch is at least as appealing as anything Hillary, Obama, and Edwards are selling.
Still, the defining issue will again be Iraq. If there’s no turnaround, there’s no Rudy victory, certainly not against Obama (who has opposed the war all along) or Edwards (who now calls his war vote a mistake). Ironically, it’s Giuliani’s erstwhile 2000 Senate opponent who gives Rudy his best shot. Hillary Clinton’s Bush-like refusal to say “I made a mistake” makes her somewhat more vulnerable on Iraq. Rudy, meanwhile, has been careful to leave himself wiggle room on the issue by saying that he recognizes the troop surge may not work (at the same time, to protect his right flank, he’s careful to insist that whatever happens in Iraq, the broader war on terror must go on). And despite the fact that she’s not the demon she once was to the right, Hillary’s very presence on the ballot will still drive many hard-right Republicans straight to the polling place.
Of course, there is a wild card. George Will recently called Rudy the best answer to “the seven-minute question”: Which candidate is most capable of analyzing and responding to a global crisis? It may be an awful stereotype, but if there’s another terrorist attack in the summer of 2008, a lot of suburban moms who may lean toward Hillary or Obama or Edwards will, in the privacy of the voting booth, pull the lever for Rudy.
It’s a mid-February Tuesday, and Giuliani is in California’s Central Valley for the opening ceremonies of the World Ag Expo in Tulare, a.k.a. “The Greatest Farm Show on Earth.” With the Golden State threatening to move up its presidential primary next year to early February, California suddenly looks a lot more important than it used to. Rudy, in the midst of a weeklong trip, has already spoken to Silicon Valley tycoons, keynoted the state Republican convention, and smoked a cigar with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Today dawns overcast, but eventually the sun pokes through, giving glimpses of an endless blue sky. Amid the almond fields, overalls, and talk of irrigation reform, no place in America seems farther away from that gray, dark pit in lower Manhattan.
Still, five minutes into his speech, Rudy Giuliani, casually dressed in blue blazer, black loafers, and a V-neck sweater, finds his way to September 11. The mayor begins by admitting he doesn’t know much about ag policy, but that he’s a quick study. What he does know, he says, he learned on 9/11.
“We depend on each other. I always knew that, but that really got into my heart, my soul, in a way I’ll never forget, on September 11, 2001,” says Giuliani. “You realize how much we depend on each other. We depend on you a lot for food for sustenance.”
Rudy’s taking 9/11 local again, and he keeps working it. He tells the farmers what they could learn from that day. “We made a mistake on energy. I just met two Marines who were wounded in Fallujah before I came in here. It is very frustrating in a way that goes deep into our heart; we got to send monies to our enemies to protect a lifestyle in America. We can’t let it happen with food. The American farmer is the most productive, most innovative farmer in the world.”
The crowd cheers. Giuliani continues with his standard “They are at war with us” speech. But today, he adds a new wrinkle. “It was a very, very strange accident of fate or whatever, but I was in London, a half block away from the first bomb that went off a year and a half ago. I was six miles away when the first plane hit the World Trade Center and one mile away when the second plane it. I’ve lived through these attacks.”