McCain now seems determined to pursue the path that Keene suggests he should have the first time around. Throughout our conversation, he invokes Reagan’s name repeatedly, along with the two issues that have served as the basis for the thaw between him and the right: his hawkish stance on the Iraq war and his crusade against federal spending. By letting McCain adopt a posture at once conservative and anti-Establishment, the latter is especially clever: “I’m just beside myself about this spending—I can’t tell you how awful it is,” he says. “I haven’t left the Republican Party; the party has abandoned the Republican principle of fiscal discipline.”
McCain has also been tacking rightward in less obvious—or at least less aggressively publicized—ways. He has thrown his support behind the teaching of “intelligent design” along with evolution in public schools. He has endorsed a constitutional amendment in Arizona to ban gay marriage and deny benefits to unmarried couples of any kind. He has met privately with Jerry Falwell, in an apparent attempt to gin up a rapprochement with the Christian right, which he famously and vividly attacked at the height of the 2000 campaign.
With gestures like this—and there will doubtless be many more to come—McCain risks tarnishing his image as a maverick, and alienating voters such as . . . well, you and me. But that may be the price he must pay for securing the nomination. “He’s trying to run from a much more mainstream Republican posture while maintaining a patina of independence,” says Keene. “He doesn’t need to make the right love him; he just needs to defang the right so it can’t hurt him. I think he’s in good shape—he’s definitely the front-runner.”
According to most polls, of course, that’s not exactly true: Giuliani runs slightly ahead of McCain consistently. And no one doubts that Giuliani’s popularity is real and sincerely felt. Yet among political professionals there is something approaching a consensus that of the two men, he occupies the far weaker position. To start with, McCain has run a national campaign before—a considerable asset. McCain can also lay claim to the “it’s my turn” mantle of seniority in the presidential sweepstakes—another important advantage in a party of primogeniture.
Worse for Giuliani, because he and McCain have the same set of strengths—heroism, national-security cred—and appeal to the same moderate and independent base of voters, it will make it devilishly difficult for Hizzoner to portray himself as a McCain alternative. As Keene puts it, “If McCain is the problem, Rudy isn’t the solution.”
Even if McCain weren’t present in the race, Giuliani would have his share of obstacles to surmount. Unlike McCain, who can at least lay credible claim to being conservative on many social issues, Giuliani is something close to a bona fide social liberal: pro–gay rights, pro–gun control, thrice married, etc. Can some of these issues be fudged, rendering Giuliani modestly more palatable to the red-meat-eating right? Sure. But one of them cannot.
“It’s in Giuliani’s business interests to make people think he’s running. It helps with clients, it creates an aura, it contributes to your mojo.”
“It’s simply inconceivable that there would be a pro-choice nominee in today’s party,” says Wittman. “It’s too central a component in holding the entire Republican coalition together. Before he takes another step, Giuliani has to figure out how to deal with that. And I don’t see how he does it, other than changing his position—which raises its own set of issues altogether. It’s truly an impossible hurdle for him to get over.”
All of which leads Keene to a stark conclusion: “Rudy has to know that his best day will be the day he announces—it’ll be all downhill from there. And Rudy is no fool. So I frankly don’t believe that, in the end, he’ll run for president.”
Now, in New York, that opinion borders on heresy. Since Giuliani has broadly hinted that he intends to run again for public office, and since he declined to hurl himself at either the Senate or the governor’s mansion in 2006, that leaves only one option. “I have absolutely no doubt that he’s running,” says Fred Siegel, a former Giuliani adviser and author of the recently published biography The Prince of the City. “He’s enormously ambitious, enormously confident—oh, yeah, he’s going to be in.”
In Washington, though, a different perception is afoot. Says one longtime political-media guru, “McCain shows every sign of running and Giuliani shows no sign. McCain is out on a book tour, raising money for his pac, giving money away to other Republican candidates. What’s Rudy doing? Giving speeches, making money for himself. You can’t just sit there thinking, Hey, it would be fun to run; you have to be organizing right now, putting people in place.” Adds another campaign vet, “I know people in town who are signed up to work for every potential candidate on the list—Allen, Huckabee, Brownback, even Gingrich. But I don’t know a single soul who’s working on Giuliani’s campaign.”