What Giuliani’s Lead Really Means

By: Wall Street Journal

November 13, 2007

Rudy Giuliani is the kind of candidate who doesn’t display self-confidence so much as he oozes it from every pore.

And why not? His rise to the top of the Republican presidential field is the political story of the year, and his staying power atop national polls is as striking as Hillary Clinton’s parallel strength on the Democratic side.

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But in this case, the numbers do lie. Though the Giuliani and Clinton leads in national polls appear similar, Mr. Giuliani’s grip on his party’s nominating process is, in fact, less solid, and the tests he is likely to face are more severe.

Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans have “no clear front-runner, but instead a set of less-than-perfect candidates,” write Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff, in a memo summarizing their latest national survey for The Wall Street Journal and NBC News.

To become that clear front-runner, Mr. Giuliani must confront some questions about his party’s mind-set this election cycle, as well as doubts about his unconventional strategy of focusing more on primaries in big states than on the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.

For now, Mr. Giuliani’s ability to sustain his lead is striking, almost baffling. The idea that a party dominated by Southerners and conservatives who oppose abortion would open its arms to a thrice-married New Yorker who has backed abortion rights, gay rights and gun control is a mind-bender. The last supporter of abortion rights who made a plausible run for the party’s nomination was then-California Gov. Pete Wilson in 1996, and he lasted about as long as a red-eye flight from the West Coast.

Yet here are today’s numbers: A fresh Journal/NBC News poll shows Mr. Giuliani commands the support of 33% of Republicans, more than double the 16% who favor John McCain or the 15% who back Fred Thompson. Most surprisingly, he leads among self-identified “very conservative” Republicans and weekly churchgoers, and is essentially tied with Messrs. McCain and Thompson among evangelicals.

What accounts for this gravity-defying performance? For starters, it’s a sign that for many Republicans an image of strength — Mr. Giuliani’s prime asset — now trumps a candidate’s position on the issues.

“It’s all about leadership,” says Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who ran Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign but is unaffiliated this time around. “It’s all about him being a tough guy who won’t take c— from anyone. Social conservatives have embraced this and have overlooked the traditional issues of life, marriage and the Second Amendment for the guy,” Mr. Reed adds.

Similarly, some conservatives seem to have changed their top priority from social issues to fighting terrorism. They may well view Islamic extremists as a bigger threat than abortionists to the future of Judeo-Christian society, and nobody looks like a better foe of extremists than the former New York mayor who stood strong amid the rubble of 9/11.

Mr. Giuliani’s rise also appears to reflect a streak of sheer practicality among Republicans. He could bring whole new states (think New Jersey) into play for the party. Much as Bill Clinton persuaded liberals to swallow their misgivings about him in 1992 in order to win, Mr. Giuliani is doing the same with conservatives now.

But is all that enough?

Not just yet. The base of the party remains Southerners and social conservatives, the same constituencies with which Mr. Giuliani has the most trouble. When Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio did an in-depth study of his party earlier this year, he determined that 38% of Republicans are Southerners, while just 16% are from the Northeast. Yet the Journal/NBC News poll finds Mr. Giuliani strongest in the Northeast and weakest in the South.

In addition, Mr. Giuliani hasn’t faced real attacks from within his party yet, but they are coming. Ask Mr. McCain what it’s like to endure withering assaults from conservatives in South Carolina; he encountered an onslaught there in 2000, and it killed his campaign. And Mr. Giuliani has some soft spots for attackers to hit, including his association with now-indicted former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and his refusal to say where his private-security firm does business around the globe.

Most importantly, Mr. Giuliani is much stronger nationally than in the states that kick off the presidential nomination process. He’s hardly a lock to win any of the early primary and caucus states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina. Instead, he is betting heavily on Florida, which comes next, but he could suffer some serious blows to his momentum before then.

“They can’t just have a Florida strategy and lose four straight races before then,” says Mr. Reed.

The Giuliani camp says it’s fighting for Iowa and New Hampshire as well but also acknowledges the unconventional nature of its strategy of focusing more on the big states that come later. It argues that the newly compressed primary calendar, which offers up not only Florida on Jan. 29 but a trove of delegate-rich states on Feb. 5, including some in the Northeast, has changed the game.

“This is not necessarily the traditional way,” campaign manager Michael DuHaime told reporters yesterday. “Conventional wisdom has never guided this campaign.”

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com

* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:

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