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Giuliani emerges as GOP's front runner

William Douglas
McClatchy Newspapers
Rudy Guiliani delivers remarks at the 34th Annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington March 2, 2007. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT)

WASHINGTON - For a thrice-married, pro-choice, gun-control-supporting, immigration-loving former New York City mayor who supposedly can't win the confidence of Christian conservatives, let alone the Republican presidential nomination, Rudolph Giuliani is sitting pretty now.

With the first voting for a nominee less than a year away, Giuliani leads the Republican presidential pack in nearly every national poll, and he's expanding his lead. Some surveys have him defeating Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., in general election match-ups.

Riding his Sept. 11, 2001, image as "America's Mayor," he's defying predictions that his moderate social-policy positions and unseemly personal baggage would hurt him with conservatives. In fact, Giuliani received a raucous reception Friday when he spoke at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

The former two-term mayor held the packed hotel ballroom's attention as he gently attacked Democrats on the Iraq war and spoke generally on economic and education themes. He wrapped himself in the tax-cutting, evil-fighting "morning in America" mantle of former President Ronald Reagan.

"If we do it right with the spirit of America, the enemies that we think we have now in this war on terror are going to be friends of America" (like post-war Germany and Japan became).

"We'll get there with a Ronald Reagan kind of spirit - peace through strength," he said to applause.

While Giuliani was wooing the crowd in the ballroom, some Christian conservatives were in the halls grudgingly acknowledging his front-runner status.

"This is his high-water mark," predicted Paul Weyrich, the chairman of the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation and one of the founding fathers of the Christian right movement. "Once the discussion goes around the country about what he stands for - he's big on the promotion of gay marriage - he'll have a hard time getting beyond where he is now." (In fact, Giuliani opposes gay marriage but supports civil unions.)

Where he is now is on top.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week, Giuliani led Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., 44 percent to 21 percent. That showed his lead widening; the same poll in January had Giuliani ahead of McCain 34 percent to 27 percent.

Giuliani's surge came from increased support among white evangelical Protestants, the latest poll showed. Political experts had predicted that Giuliani's support for legalized abortion and gay rights would hamper him with religious voters, but not so far.

"For me the most important issue is national security and the war on terror," said Caleb Gibson, 22, a Republican from Huntington, W. Va. "I don't agree with him on everything, but Giuliani is the strong candidate on the war on terror."

Giuliani also appears to the favorite among independents. In a USA Today/Gallup poll last month, independents gave him a 68 percent favorable rating, to 55 percent for McCain. (Clinton and Obama each had a 55 percent favorable rating.)

Giuliani's crossover appeal is striking. Democrats gave him a 55 percent favorable rating in the USA Today/Gallup survey, while Obama had only a 39 percent favorable rating among Republicans, and Clinton had 28 percent.

His appeal is rooted most in his image as a take-charge leader in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center.

"You know what Rudy's base is? 9/11," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "That's a pretty good brand. He's got the title `America's Mayor' and everybody knows that."

Gary Bauer, the chairman of American Values, a group of social conservatives, said that the leadership that Giuliani exhibited on Sept. 11 and his tough talk on terror appeal to some religious conservatives who are concerned about Islamic radicalism.

"One of the moral issues is the defense of Western civilization," said Bauer, a former Republican presidential candidate. "Is it going to trump the other moral issues, like the sanctity of life? It may very well. The defense of Western civilization plays very much to Giuliani's strength."

But questions persist about whether Giuliani will have staying power once Americans get to know him beyond the heroic Sept. 11 figure.

While he was enormously successful as mayor in cleaning up New York City, driving down crime and promoting prosperity, his police were often criticized for brutality against blacks. Giuliani always backed the cops.

Meanwhile, his personal life gave ample fodder to the city's aggressive tabloids.

He's been married three times and divorced twice. His first wife was a second cousin. His marriage to television anchorwoman Donna Hanover ended in a messy divorce and resulted in Giuliani moving out of the mayoral mansion for a while. He's currently married to Judith Nathan, a nurse.

Then there are questions about Giuliani's management style. Critics complain about a fiery temper, an enormous and prickly ego and a my-way-or-the-highway autocratic style.

Questions about Giuliani's associations arose in 2004 with the nomination of Bernard Kerik to head the federal Department of Homeland Security. Kerik was a former New York City police commissioner under Giuliani and his business partner. Eventually, Kerik's nomination was dropped because of immigration and tax issues involving a former nanny. Later, reports surfaced that Kerik had two simultaneous extramarital affairs while he was police commissioner.

"To be associated with someone like that, I wouldn't vote for Giuliani," said Jeff Goldberg, 51, a conservative Republican from Clifton, N.J., just outside New York. "Besides, some of the methods he employed to clean up New York are illegal and unconstitutional."

Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative anti-tax group, said that voters can overlook Giuliani's negatives as long as he "leaves them alone, educates their kids" and appoints judges in the vein of Supreme Court Justices John G. Roberts and Samuel Alito.

But former New York City Democratic Mayor Ed Koch isn't so sure.

"I still believe that at the end of the road, when the electorate gets to know him, he will be the vice presidential candidate on the John McCain ticket," Koch said. He endorsed Giuliani twice for mayor but later had a falling-out that prompted him to write a book titled "Giuliani: Nasty Man."

"But then he's the surprise candidate of 2008, so who knows?" Koch said.

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