The Clemson Tigers won their first 17 basketball games last season—the best start of any of the 350 or so college teams in the country—and yet were still dismissed by hoops pundits, who scoffed at their cream-puff schedule and predicted a sharp decline when the competition stiffened. Sure enough, the Tigers dropped 10 of their next 14 games and failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Similar skepticism accompanies Rudy Giuliani, who has sprinted to the political equivalent of a 17-0 start in his bid for the Republican Presidential nomination, building double-digit leads over his nearest rival, John McCain, in early polling and amassing a robust campaign treasury. Political cognoscenti have long held that once Mr. Giuliani’s history of social liberalism (and painfully public adultery) is properly aired, a disgusted conservative base will revolt and undermine his standing.
And surely, if ever there were a time for those dire forecasts to be realized, it is now, as a confluence of events has turned popular attention to the very emotionally charged issues on which Mr. Giuliani is supposedly so vulnerable.
First, the ghastly Virginia Tech shootings prompted renewed discussion of gun control, a concept Mr. Giuliani has long embraced. Then the Supreme Court broke with its own precedent and affirmed a federal ban on late-term abortions—hardly the topic that Mr. Giuliani, loudly pro-choice in his New York days, wants Republicans fixating on.
And now the gay marriage debate is back on the front burner in—of all places—the pivotal lead-off primary state of New Hampshire, where that state’s Democratic governor, John Lynch, will soon sign a civil-unions bill. At the same time, in the home state of Mr. Giuliani—who famously took up residence with a gay couple after his second marriage imploded late in his Mayoralty—Governor Eliot Spitzer is now prodding the Legislature to extend marriage rights to gays.
Surely, all of this will be more than enough to sentence Mr. Giuliani to the same dreary fate as Arlen Specter and Pete Wilson, the last two pro-choicers to run for the G.O.P. nomination.
Or maybe it won’t.
Consider, again, the Clemson analogy. The Tigers’ collapse was so easily predicted because they had yet to face the likes of North Carolina, Duke and Maryland, titanic powerhouses of the college-basketball world, against whom they were obviously overmatched.
Mr. Giuliani’s Republican competitors aren’t anywhere near as imposing—to the point that the former Mayor’s ideological heresy might actually be outweighed by their flaws and shortcomings.
Mr. McCain’s White House ship is rapidly taking on water. Influential segments of the party’s interest-group establishment still haven’t forgiven his crusade to put them out of business with campaign-finance restrictions, just as the media that once adoringly celebrated his maverick streak has now fully turned on him for his unbending support of the war and his tendency to say whatever conservative interest groups want to hear. Even Republicans who remain publicly loyal to the administration’s Iraq policies are surely questioning the pragmatic wisdom of anointing as their first post-Bush standard-bearer someone so intimately identified with a war that continues to lose the public’s confidence.
Then there’s Mitt Romney, the former one-term governor of Massachusetts, who has alternately described himself to conservatives as an avowed foe of abortion, a champion of “traditional marriage” and a “lifelong hunter”—the perfect recipe, it would seem, to eat into Mr. Giuliani’s soft support from the right. Except that Mr. Romney spent his entire political career (until three years ago) defining himself in flatly opposite terms. The chameleon act has worked on some Republicans, but Mr. Romney’s peerless opportunism creates profound vulnerabilities across the ideological spectrum.
Given these alternatives, it’s not at all clear that conservatives who are drawn to Mr. Giuliani’s 9/11 credentials will abandon him, especially since he’s done all he can (short of resorting to Mr. Romney’s blatant flip-flopping) to convince them that he won’t actually promote gay rights, abortion rights and gun control as President.
The problem for Mr. Giuliani may turn out to be that his competitors are too weak. The obvious problems plaguing the McCain and Romney campaigns have led directly to the likelihood of a campaign by Fred Thompson, a charismatic sometime reformer in his Senate days who, shrewdly, is now preaching pure conservative gospel. That prospect might well be something for the former mayor to worry about.
All of the Republican candidates—minus Mr. Thompson—will meet for their first debate this week. Mr. Giuliani will undoubtedly take some hits—likely from a group of long-shot right-wingers who are also running. But one thing already seems certain: At the end of the night, he won’t look any worse than his rivals.
Steve Kornacki works as an organizer for Unity08, a group that supports a bipartisan Presidential ticket in 2008.
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