An air of aching familiarity hovered over the anti–Rudy Giuliani rally staged last week on Park Avenue by an array of aggrieved 9/11 families, firefighters, and rescue workers. This was, after all, the fourth time the group, led by Deputy Fire Chief Jim Riches, who lost a son in the conflagration, has leveled its passel of 9/11-related charges—the comprehensive lack of preparedness, the faulty radios, the placement of the emergency command center in the WTC complex even after the 1993 bombing—against the former mayor. But familiar or not, the protest afforded Riches the chance to announce his long-term objective: “We intend to Swift-boat Rudy the way they Swift-boated Kerry,” he told the Daily News.
A normal presidential candidate would regard such a threat as at least mildly unnerving. But Giuliani more likely takes it as a kind of compliment—a sign that he has crossed the threshold, that he’s now the man to beat in the Republican presidential race. (Who would waste any energy plotting to Swift-boat Sam Brownback?) Projecting an image of presumptive nomineehood, in fact, has lately been at the center of his strategy: his trip to London, full of foreign-policy pronunciamento and saber-rattling toward Iran; his feral attacks on MoveOn.org over the Petraeus-Betray-Us ad; his declaration that 2008 will boil down to “Who does America want for their [sic] future, Rudolph Giuliani or Hillary Clinton?”
In political circles, the reaction to the notion that Giuliani—with his record of out-front social liberalism, soap-operatic personal life, and dabbling in transvestism—might actually become the GOP standard-bearer has long been McEnroe-esque: You cannot be serious! Yet Giuliani has led in virtually every national poll since he declared his candidacy. The entry of Fred Thompson, who has come across more like Deputy Dawg than a plausible Rudy-slayer, has done little to change that. And although Giuliani trails Mitt Romney by double digits in Iowa, he’s within striking distance of first in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and he tops the field in Florida and California. Translation: It could happen.
Even so, Giuliani remains a highly problematic candidate, just not in the ways that so many assume. The received wisdom has always held that Rudy would make a formidable general-election contender yet a prohibitively weak one in the Republican primaries. Eight months into the campaign, however, it strikes me that the reality might prove precisely the opposite—that Giuliani may be the candidate most in tune with the GOP primary electorate, but that the very qualities that have served his cause best so far would cripple his chances in the general.
I caught up with Giuliani recently in Washington, where he’d come for his much-anticipated audience before the National Rifle Association. By now, you will have already absorbed the highlights of the occasion: Rudy’s awkward stabs at tension-defusing humor (“It’s great to be in England,” he said at the outset), the rank intellectual incoherence (the claim that 9/11 “cast somewhat of a different light on the Second Amendment”), and, of course, the freaky-deaky cell-phone call from Judi. What the press reports failed to convey, however, is the sheer discomfort that Giuliani conveyed at being in front of this crowd, the way that his body language seemed to be harrumphing “If I must.”
And yet he came. He made the effort. And although he manifestly didn’t conquer—I’d wager that he didn’t win a single convert in that room—he emerged without even a flesh wound. He paid respect and gained some, too.
Giuliani’s campaign has not been replete with Sister Souljah moments, and far from challenging the NRA, he engaged in some flip-floppery, disowning the lawsuit he filed as mayor against gun manufacturers. On immigration, too, he has thrown his transmission into reverse (1994 Rudy: “Some of the hardest-working and most productive people in this city are undocumented aliens”; 2007 Rudy: “People that come in illegally, we’ve got to stop”). But by the standards of, say, Romney, whose wholesale abandonment of his past persona—soon, I expect, he’ll be telling us he’s realized that he’s a Baptist and not a Mormon—has been mind-boggling in its totality, Giuliani has been a model of consistency. He has stuck with his stance in favor of a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Ditto on domestic partnerships.
That Giuliani has suffered so little for his heresies owes much to the ineptitude of his rivals. Consider the kid-glove treatment of the horror-cum-burlesque show that is Rudy’s personal life. The other day, Romney attempted to score points here—but instead of going for the jugular, he lunged for the capillaries, observing that “when it comes time to run against Hillary Clinton,” the Republican nominee will need “to bring all their family together as I have on the campaign trail.” Now, contrast this with the words, a few days earlier, of former Iowa governor and current Clinton co-chair Tom Vilsack: “I can’t even get into the number of marriages … and the relationship he has with his children,” he said, grinning. “He’s got a very interesting past.” Republicans, N.B.: That’s how you serve up chin music in the major leagues.