NEW YORK - It is one of the emerging mysteries of the 2008 race for the White House - voters punishing Sen. John McCain for his support of the Iraq war, while seeming to give a pass to the equally hawkish Rudy Giuliani.
Yes, McCain is viewed in some ways as an unofficial architect of President Bush’s latest troop “surge” into Iraq, an idea the Arizona Republican has championed for years as a way to hasten progress in the war-torn nation.
But anyone who watched Giuliani stump through the nation last week saw a candidate who was all for the “surge” - and more.
The former New York City mayor said repeatedly that, if elected, he would stay “on offense” wherever terrorism rears its head and, at various times he listed Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and even U.S. ally Pakistan as countries to watch.
In Iowa and South Carolina, Giuliani mocked Democratic talk of a scheduled pullout in Iraq as “dangerous” to troops and lacking in common sense, akin to printing out a timetable for retreat and handing it to the enemy. And in Florida, he voiced support for maintaining the Patriot Act and aggressively interrogating prisoners of war.
“Being on the offensive means the Patriot Act,” he told a Republican crowd in Tampa. “It means surveillance. It means interrogation - legal and humane interrogation.”
Little of this would seem to jibe with the public mood, especially among the moderate independents and conservative Democrats that Giuliani will likely need to win a general election.
The effect on McCain’s candidacy has been drastic with his poll numbers skidding so badly he trails Giuliani by 20 points in some polls.
“Line by line, his positions may be similar (to McCain’s),” said Lee Miringoff of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “But he is not seen as being in a leadership position.”
“He also probably doesn’t want to be swimming against the president right now among Republicans, since he’s already swimming so hard on the social issues,” said Miringoff, referring to Giuliani’s pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control views.
The war also serves another purpose for Giuliani - as a rhetorical jumping off point to Sept. 11, the day that established him as a national figure.
His speech last week in a West Des Moines, Iowa, gymnasium, before some 300 voters out to catch their first glimpse of Giuliani, was typical.
He began with his usual refrain about the need to “stay on offense” against terrorists. Using a line favored by Vice President Dick Cheney, Giuliani suggested the enemies in Iraq are part of the same network of terrorists who attacked on Sept. 11, and said terrorists are even more threatening than the Cold War.
“All during the Cold War, it doesn’t seem to me the communists were planning to come here and kill us,” said Giuliani. “The people who came to America and attacked us were these terrorists.”
The transition to Sept. 11 holds everyone rapt. The room falls silent as Giuliani admits how everyone - including him - failed to recognize the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 as an act of war.
“Now there is no excuse,” he says, punching the air. “Now we know what they have done - which no one else has done to us, not in modern times - and we know what they are capable of.”
“And here is the answer to it: In order to keep ourselves safe, no longer, ever again, should we be on defense against terrorism,” he said as the applause began to spread. “We must remain on offense.”