Is Rudy Likely to Be a Favorite or a Flop?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 17, 2007 · 11:02 PM EST

The battle lines of the great schism are starting to harden. No, it’s not the division between supporters and opponents of legal abortion, or between Catholicism and Protestantism. It isn’t even the Yankees and the Red Sox.

Today’s deepest division is between those political observers who believe that Rudy Giuliani is a credible contender for the Republican presidential nomination and those who think that his chances are no better than those of California Rep. Duncan Hunter.

Giuliani is getting plenty of attention because he appears to be putting together a national campaign team, and early polls show him and Arizona Sen. John McCain leading the GOP race.

The case for the mayor centers on his leadership qualities and his perceived electability.

Giuliani’s strong leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks made him a national celebrity. But at least part of his reputation for effectiveness preceded the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Remember, the former New York mayor earned raves for cleaning up New York City, including the once-sleazy Times Square area, an accomplishment once considered impossible by most Americans, certainly by most New Yorkers.

Giuliani oozes leadership, optimism and strength, qualities that serve presidential candidates — and presidents — quite well. He’s forceful and dynamic. He can be self-deprecating. He’s good on Letterman. As the former mayor of New York, he’s been the focus of media attention for years, so he isn’t likely to be rattled by the spotlight that a serious presidential contender would get.

Giuliani’s record as mayor certainly would give ammunition to his Republican opponents, but unlike some of the White House hopefuls, he doesn’t have a lengthy legislative record that can be dissected and used against him. And unlike McCain, Giuliani isn’t in office now, so he has the freedom to camp out in Iowa or New Hampshire without worrying that he will miss roll call votes.

More than anything else, however, Giuliani looks like a winner, a Republican who can defeat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Giuliani would have appeal to independents and even Democrats, and he’d have a better chance than any other Republican on the planet of carrying states in the Northeast and industrial Midwest. At the very least, he’d force Democrats to play defense in states they take for granted.

For Republicans, electability suddenly takes on increased importance after the party’s defeat in the midterm elections, and a number of veteran Republican insiders argue that Giuliani’s apparent appeal in the general election could entice GOP primary voters and caucus participants to look past his views on social issues.

Those are plenty of assets, and they help explain why Giuliani performs so well in early polls. But the mayor’s weaknesses as a Republican contender were apparent well before his campaign memo was released, and they are as serious as they are quick to list.

First, Giuliani disagrees with his own party on abortion, gun control and gay rights. These aren’t just peripheral matters. They are core issues.

And second, his personal life would be a problem. It’s not merely that he is on his third marriage. It is that just before the World Trade Center attacks, New York tabloids were filled with stories about the mayor’s marital troubles and his apparent adultery. The former mayor’s personal and professional relationship with former New York City Police Chief Bernie Kerick, who has his own legal troubles, also could pose problems for Giuliani, who understands that all of his business dealings would be fair game as a presidential hopeful.

I really don’t think it’s all that close of a call which of the two lines of argument — Giuliani will be embraced by Republican activists and voters looking for a winner, or he is unacceptable to too many GOP conservatives to be nominated — is more persuasive. Put me squarely in the second camp. I find it very difficult to believe that Giuliani could be nominated as president by the Republican Party, as it’s currently constituted.

Ideology certainly isn’t the only consideration when the nation elects a president, and I don’t think that it is even the most important one most of the time. Leadership, vision and values matter more. But winning a nomination is a different matter entirely. It is crucial in closed primaries and caucuses, where only the party faithful — and I do mean faithful — decide on convention delegates.

Does anyone seriously believe that a Democrat who opposes legal abortion could be nominated for president by his or her party? Democrats wouldn’t allow that officeholder to even speak at the party’s national convention 10 years ago. (That may have changed now that many Democratic leaders seem intent on broadening the party’s tent. We will see in 2008.)

And if the Democrats wouldn’t nominate a cultural conservative, why should anyone believe that Republicans would pick a social liberal? It seems to me that you need to suspend all your analytical faculties to believe the GOP will nominate for president a Republican who supports abortion rights, and is pro-gun control and pro-gay rights. It just isn’t going to happen, at least not in my lifetime.

Giuliani’s strong showing in GOP polling reflects his celebrity status and the reputation he earned after the terrorist attacks. But if and when he becomes a candidate, that will change. He will be evaluated on the basis of different things, including his past and current positions and behavior, and he’ll be attacked by critics and opponents. A Giuliani nomination would also generate a conservative third-party candidate in the general election and tear the GOP apart, thereby undercutting Giuliani’s electability argument.

So, the former mayor might make a terrific general election candidate, but I don’t see how he can get there as a Republican.