Giuliani is keeping an open mind

December 17, 1997|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

NEW YORK -- Mayor Rudy Giuliani sits comfortably in shirtsleeves in his City Hall office and explains why, in his successful re-election campaign just past, he declined to pledge to finish his second four-year term, a refusal that didn't stop New Yorkers from voting for him overwhelmingly anyway.

''Lots of people have made that pledge and something has come along,'' he said. ''I've always tried, when I'm running for office, to avoid pledges.'' And he recalls how President George Bush got in such hot water for reneging on his 1988 ''read my lips, no new taxes'' pledge that he lost his bid for re-election.

Presidential timber?

Mr. Giuliani's reluctance to promise to complete his second term is of particular interest in the wake of his one-sided re-election victory, which has started tongues wagging about a possible presidential candidacy in 2000, or at least the second spot on the Republican national ticket.

Mr. Giuliani insists not taking the pledge doesn't mean he intends to seek national office before his second term is over in early 2002. But as a member of the never-say-never school, he doesn't want to leave himself open to charges of hypocrisy if he changes his current intention not to run.

''I don't know what opportunities will present themselves in the next year or the year after,'' he says. ''I love this job and if all things remain the same, I'm going to spend four [more] years doing it. But I don't rule out considering any option that might come along.''

Such candor is uncommon among candidates, who customarily swear on stacks of Bibles when running for one office that they have absolutely no interest whatever in any other job. Bill Clinton in seeking re-election for governor of Arkansas made the pledge and broke it in 1992 with no apparent downside.

The same was not true, however, of Pete Wilson in California after his successful gubernatorial re-election campaign in 1994. Voters and supportive fund-raisers who took him at his word that he would finish the new term were outraged when he declared his candidacy for president thereafter. He plunged in state polls and his campaign money dried up, forcing an early exit from the 1996 presidential race.

Mr. Giuliani is well aware of this history and is not constructing that particular barrier for himself. In the meantime, he has some noteworthy thoughts about what may be happening in the GOP that could make a Republican like himself, who does not buy into all of the conservative orthodoxy of the party, more acceptable for its national ticket three years hence.

As a supporter of abortion rights, stronger gun controls and a welcoming posture toward continued immigration, Mr. Giuliani is not the conservative wing's poster boy, despite major reductions in crime, welfare recipients, city spending and taxes. And his endorsement of Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo for re-election in 1994 still rankles many party regulars.

But he professes to see a new pragmatism developing in the GOP that could make him more acceptable to them. ''I think there's a good chance that what's happening to the Republican Party right now, and I don't think this is wishful thinking,'' he says, ''is that the Republican Party may be going through what the Democratic Party went through in 1991 and 1992 . . . developing a feeling that it is better to broaden our appeal and have a better chance of winning than to go through four more years of a Democratic presidency.

''I think that what happened to the Democratic Party after having been shut out of office for eight years of Ronald Reagan and three and a half years of George Bush, was to say, 'Let's not let the most ideological viewpoint of the party prevail, let's go with a centrist candidate.' That's exactly how Bill Clinton won in 1992.''

A better choice

Even the most liberal New Yorkers, Mr. Giuliani notes, were willing to accept President Clinton in spite of the fact that he JTC differed from them on such things as capital punishment, workfare, welfare reform and economic policies ''he borrowed from the Republicans,'' because they felt he was better than the Republican alternative.

''The Republican Party has that sense in it right now,'' he said, and ''should in the two years leading up to the presidential election try to develop the best possible candidate.''

In the scheme of things, Mr. Giuliani might well be seen in his party as a centrist in the Clinton mold. But he names a host of others who also qualify, and he seems very willing to let them vie for the next nomination -- for now, anyway.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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