The Rudy Trap: N.H. Still Likes McCain

102306 article wiseguys The Rudy Trap: N.H. Still Likes McCainCONCORD, N.H.—Between stops last Thursday on what was his first New Hampshire visit of the 2008 cycle, Rudy Giuliani affirmed his support for the state’s first-in-the-nation primary status.

“I’m sort of a traditionalist anyway,” he said at an event here. “I got all annoyed when they got a designated hitter in baseball.”

It was a fittingly smooth start for the former Mayor in this rarest of states, where the Republican Party actually smiles on cultural heretics like him.

Yet if Rudy does take the ’08 plunge, it is actually New Hampshire that could be his Waterloo.

A stretch to begin with, a Giuliani coronation in Minneapolis two summers from now absolutely requires him to win New Hampshire’s leadoff primary. In contrast to the G.O.P. electorates of most of the other decisive primary and caucus states, a marked strain of libertarianism runs through New Hampshire’s Republican Party, which routinely embraces social moderates.

Moreover, the rules of the New Hampshire’s Presidential game favor mavericks. Independents, who are free to take part in the ’08 G.O.P. primary, figure to account for a quarter of all votes cast. Overall, about half of the state’s registered voters will turn out for the Presidential primary, a unique check on the sway that hardened ideologues and their pesky litmus tests hold in low-participation nominating contests—like, say, the Iowa caucuses.

Rather inexplicably, New Hampshire is even home to a not-invisible smattering of Yankees fans—Adam Sandler, who grew up in Manchester, to name one.

In other words, if Rudy can’t make it here, he can’t make it anywhere.

But the same can be said of John McCain, whose international political stardom was born in New Hampshire six Februarys ago, when he socked George W. Bush and his cash machine by 19 points, an unforeseen political earthquake triggered by those same independent-minded voters.

And the problem for Rudy is that Mr. McCain is running again. He remains a political rock star to New Hampshire’s masses, a status on display last month, when Mr. McCain served as the honorary starter at an auto race in Loudon. As he walked to his seat, according to Peter Spaulding, Mr. McCain’s ’00 New Hampshire campaign chairman, he was swarmed by race fans who treated him “like he was one of the racers.”

Those race fans, as Mr. Spaulding noted, are precisely the kinds of casual voters—average citizens who don’t follow the inner workings of politics and who probably couldn’t pick Mitt Romney out of a line-up—who ultimately decide New Hampshire primaries.

Granted, Mr. Giuliani enjoys a similar appeal, something New Hampshire’s Republican leaders sought to harness last Thursday. After headlining a morning fund-raising event, Mr. Giuliani posed for photos with candidates for the state House of Representatives, who no doubt hope that the visual association with “America’s Mayor” will boost their November prospects.

But as Mr. Giuliani wrapped up his one-day visit, the University of New Hampshire released its first ’08 poll. Mr. McCain was first on the Republican side, with 32 percent, easily outpacing Mr. Giuliani, whose 19 percent was good for second place.

Add those numbers together and you get 51 percent—almost identical to the 49 percent that Mr. McCain snagged the last time his name was on a New Hampshire Republican ballot. The findings suggest, then, that the size of that ’00 McCain base remains the same and that Mr. McCain has a clear leg up on Mr. Giuliani in corralling it for ’08. Indeed, Mr. McCain’s game plan—playing footsy with Jerry Falwell, arguing for the teaching of “intelligent design” and even picking a fight with Barack Obama—indicates that he is far more concerned with his standing in Iowa and South Carolina than in New Hampshire.

Of course, Mr. Giuliani, like Mr. McCain, has also been penning love letters to the Christian right—even delivering them in person, like when he campaigned with Ralph Reed earlier this year. Their antics call to mind that most underappreciated television show, The Critic, whose lead character was wont to fall to his knees before the objects of his affection and whimper, “Please like me.”

But again, Mr. McCain—who, unlike Rudy, can actually point to a record of staunch opposition to abortion and gun control—seems in a better position to beg for support from social conservatives. Indeed, through the power of contrast, Mr. Giuliani’s presence in the race could even boost Mr. McCain’s palatability to the right.

Their right-wing courtship won’t matter in New Hampshire, where James Dobson is hardly a kingmaker. But the Granite State could function as an elimination contest between the Arizonan and New Yorker for the right to move on to the Bible Belt. And if this state stays true to Mr. McCain, Mr. Giuliani’s bid might well evaporate without the religious right doing a blessed thing.