Views of Giuliani put GOP to the test

His moderate stands on social issues part with conservative base

February 12, 2007|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun reporter

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Rudolph W. Giuliani is selling himself as a doer in a world of can't-do politicians. But can he close the deal as a moderate in America's conservative party?

The former New York mayor tops the most recent Republican presidential polls. Running as an outsider, he is playing to voter disgust with Congress and lack of progress on energy security, immigration reform, shoring up Social Security and other problems.

"What we pay people in Washington for is leadership," he said Saturday with a wag of his finger, bringing 800 California Republicans, most of them conservatives and many wearing "I (heart) Rudy" buttons, to their feet, clapping and cheering.

His appeals to his party's conservative base emphasize a muscular foreign policy, taking the offensive against terrorists, cutting taxes and limiting government's reach.

So far, though, he's skirting the social issues that are near and dear to conservative activists - and that could make or break his candidacy. His support for abortion rights, gun control and gay rights paint him as a social liberal and are sharply at odds with the views of those who play an outsized role in choosing the party's nominees.

Republicans need to "put a new face on our founding principles" and "emphasize not what we're against but what we're for," said Giuliani, 62.

At the heart of his candidacy is a question: Do evangelical Christians and social conservatives, who have dominated the Republican Party for the past three decades, still have veto power over the nomination? If they do, Giuliani might not have a prayer, despite what the polls say now.

Privately, even some of his advisers aren't sure that their party is ready for change, which makes his campaign, in effect, an expensive political science experiment. The price tag for running, upward of $100 million, probably is within reach for Giuliani, who is tapping New York's financial community, among other sources.

Internal campaign documents, apparently misplaced by a fundraising aide last fall and later leaked to New York's Daily News, contained a list of challenges he must overcome, including "social issues." Also on the list: scrutiny of his business dealings and sometimes messy personal life.

President Bush's 2004 nomination of Giuliani's then-business partner, Bernard Kerik, to head the Department of Homeland Security, was withdrawn a week later, embarrassing Giuliani, who had vouched for his friend. A multimillion-dollar contract by Giuliani's firm to advise Mexican businessmen about security is drawing fire from conservative bloggers, who worry that he won't be tough enough on America's southern neighbor.

Giuliani's two divorces and questions about his fiery temperament will be dissected under the microscope of a presidential campaign, as will his marriage to Judith Nathan, his third wife.

The Brooklyn native served as a Justice Department official in the Reagan administration, but a decade earlier he voted for antiwar Democrat George McGovern against President Richard M. Nixon. In 1994, he endorsed liberal Democrat Mario M. Cuomo over Republican George E. Pataki in the New York governor's race.

Giuliani has opposed the gun lobby, a powerful force in GOP politics, numerous times, including over a ban on assault weapons. He has said that Congress should pass a law requiring every state to license all handgun owners.

Any shifts in these long-held positions risk undermining Giuliani's image as a straight-shooter, which supporters call one of his greatest assets.

"I like straight talk and being direct and telling people the truth," he told delegates to the California Republican convention.

Still, he has changed his stance on at least one social issue. He now says he favors a ban on late-term abortions, which opponents call partial-birth abortion, except when the mother's life is in danger. In 2000, he said the choice of obtaining a late-term abortion should be left to the mother.

Strategists say that if Giuliani becomes the nominee, it would confirm that Republicans are moving to the left on social and cultural issues. That could help put key states that have voted Democratic in recent elections, including California, back in play in 2008.

For a moderate Republican to win the nomination, "it's always going to be an uphill fight. But it's not nearly as uphill when that candidate is also the hero of Sept. 11," said Dan Schnur, who worked for Sen. John McCain in the 2000 presidential contest but is not active in the 2008 campaign.

One factor that could help Giuliani's chances: the lack of a strong social conservative challenger in the current field.

The Republican contest poses "a problem for pro-lifers, who don't have a candidate in this cycle," said Jeff Bell, who managed the 2000 presidential bid of social conservative Gary Bauer. Two contenders on the Republican right, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, lack the funding base to compete effectively, he said.

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