It’s a Wonderful Rudy: Softer, Gentler Mayor Has a Reborn Campaign

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani jabbed a long finger toward a group of scruffy cameramen standing on a platform off to his right. It was Friday, April 28, just one day after Mr. Giuliani had revealed that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and here he was, standing in front of an enormous American flag in a ballroom in Saratoga Springs, speaking to an adoring crowd of 1,000 upstate Republicans who had journeyed from hamlets and towns and cities to offer solace to their stricken hero.

But if the crowd was expecting a solemn performance from the man who, less than 48 hours earlier, had learned that he had cancer, they were quickly jolted from their somber mood.

“Why are all these cameras here?” Mr. Giuliani asked. He waited a beat. “Actually, they’re here to see if I could make it from my chair to here!”

The crowd roared. A few primly dressed women glared meaningfully at the intrusive media horde.

“This morning when I arrived at work,” Mr. Giuliani continued, “there was a camera waiting for me as I got out of the van and go up the steps of City Hall. The two police officers that were in the car with me started laughing. The camera was there to see if I could walk, could walk up the stairs, so we thought it would have been really funny if we had, like, a wheelchair … “

Another blast of laughter.

” … and they could have wheeled me up the stairs!”

Within moments, the enraptured crowd had risen to its feet. Applause washed over the Mayor as the ballroom boomed with wild chants of “Rudy! Rudy!” Two immense images of Mr. Giuliani’s face beamed down on the crowd from enormous screens on each side of the stage. Amid the euphoria, the televised Rudys simultaneously unzipped a pair of 3-foot-long grins.

So went the appearance of a man suffering from a potentially deadly illness. Mr. Giuliani has always been a crisis junkie, a person who thrives on stress and combat. Now Mr. Giuliani faces the very same foe that took the life of his father. As if that weren’t intense enough, the battle with cancer comes as Mr. Giuliani faces the political race of his life. As news of Mr. Giuliani’s illness gave unexpected drama to a week of routine campaigning, the Mayor seemed energized and even occasionally possessed by a strange, even spiritual, giddiness.

Paradoxically, this frightening personal crisis enabled Mr. Giuliani to take charge of his erratic political fortunes–although he made it clear that politics would take second place to health and life itself as he prepares for treatment. In the week since his startling disclosure, reporters have stopped hammering him with inquiries about questionable municipal contracts and police brutality; City Hall press conferences have taken on an amicable tone. The steady stream of critical press releases and campaign e-mail alerts flowing in from Democrats all over the state has evaporated. And his illness has accomplished what none of his advisers was able to do: It has softened his image as a harsh and bullying figure who is unwilling, or unable, to indulge in displays of human emotion. In recent days, he has been able to show an almost Gary Cooper-like masculine grace as he confronted, in a very public way, his newfound vulnerability.

“I do think it softens him,” said one top Republican consultant who is not especially fond of the Mayor. “He often comes off as a cold, remote authoritarian type. This reminds people that there is a human dimension to him as well. He comes on your TV screen as somebody who’s going through struggles, which is something more akin to most people’s lives.”

Some Republicans noted that Mr. Giuliani’s illness also is likely to mute criticism, at least temporarily, from fellow party leaders who have complained he is running a lackluster effort and has failed to campaign extensively in upstate New York.

“Republicans who otherwise might have been critical are forced by the circumstances to say positive things about him, because otherwise they would appear mean-spirited and small,” the consultant said.

News of the illness also provided relief from another intensely embarrassing personal episode. When his wife, Donna Hanover, announced that she would star in The Vagina Monologues , which was written by a supporter of First Lady Hillary Clinton, it almost seemed calculated to humiliate her husband. Her willingness to put her sexuality on display far from Gracie Mansion emphasized Mr. Giuliani’s publicly womanless existence. But after revelations of his illness, Ms. Hanover postponed her planned appearance.

The news changed life at City Hall in an instant. On April 27, when Mr. Giuliani revealed his illness, City Hall swarmed with disoriented reporters and lobbyists and hacks who, now that their world had been flipped upside down, knew everything but knew nothing. Even before Mr. Giuliani’s press conference had come to an end, politicos milled around in the lobby, whispering their instant wisdom to harried journalists who were yelling into cell phones.

“So what does it mean?” a reporter said hurriedly to a lobbyist loitering in front of Room 9, the journalists’ hangout down the hall from City Hall’s blue room.

“He’s found a way out of the race,” the lobbyist responded with a knowing snicker.

Meanwhile, out on the steps, packs of cameramen scampered back and forth, looking for someone, anyone, to interview. City Council members who are ordinarily desperate to get their names into print suddenly found themselves besieged by reporters. So it went for the entire day, with spectators and players struggling to come to terms with the startling news.

The next morning, when Mr. Giuliani did his radio show, an eerie, subdued calm filled City Hall as the sobering news sank in. Even on slow news days, Mr. Giuliani’s enormous personality seems to fill City Hall, building, as everyone from cops at the door to reporters in Room 9 to basement-level City Council staffers speculate endlessly about the Mayor’s moods and motives. They tend to talk about the Mayor as a domineering father figure. They wonder who he’s favoring; who has earned his disappointment; who will get the belt that day.

But on this morning, the father was sick. And nobody knew how to deal with it. Yet his voice literally filled the building, reverberating in every room with a radio tuned in to hear his show. And his previously unknown soft side was on full display.

“You go through a day like yesterday, and you’re reminded about how wonderful it is to be Mayor of New York City,” Mr. Giuliani’s voice said, softly, in every room. “I think about people who get news like this, and they’re lonely, and they’re alone, and they don’t have help and support … This city is the most loving and the most generous and the most wonderful city in the whole world. And don’t let anybody ever convince you of the opposite of that … It isn’t just about me. It’s about New York and how much we all love each other and care about each other.”

When the calls began, well-wishers practically wept as they offered their support:

“I’m gonna say a special prayer in shul.”

“Our prayers are for a speedy recovery.”

“How you doing, your honor? You’re in my prayers.”

“Join the club. I had prostate cancer also.”

“I pray for you and I hope you beat this dreaded horrible thing. And I’m talking about Hillary, not the cancer. I know you’re a tough guy. Cancer, you’ll knock it out because you’re a Brooklyn guy like me. So God bless you and please beat the dark side.”

Mr. Giuliani’s spiritual tour continued on April 29, when he journeyed to Buffalo to ask for the endorsement of the tiny but circus-like Independence Party. Ordinarily this would have been a pretty grim affair. After all, he was forced to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon pleading for support from party members like Lenora Fulani, a perpetually outraged Marxist, as well as a gaggle of eternally angry supporters of Patrick Buchanan’s Presidential effort in New York. Mrs. Clinton was there, too, asking for their support, a task she regarded with barely concealed disdain.

But Mr. Giuliani, despite his illness, seemed strangely cheerful and buoyant as he fielded questions from party members. At one point, Ms. Fulani, who is black, asked him pointedly if he intended to use the party to improve relations with the city’s black community. Not long ago, such a question might have elicited sputters from Mr. Giuliani, who has long been contemptuous of what he has called “bean counters,” who view everything through the prism of race. Not this time. His answer: “I never thought about it that way. The answer is yes.”

So much good feeling swirled around Mr. Giuliani that he elicited adulation from all factions in this eccentric collection of political activists. As he wrapped up his bid for support, party members erupted in applause. A heavyset man bellowed over the din that Mr. Giuliani would soon mingle with them, an announcement that sent tremors of joy through the group.

After it was over, he indulged in a bit of–ready?–friendly banter with reporters when technical difficulties held up the shooting of his press availability.

“Unless it’s on camera, it didn’t actually happen,” one reporter ventured to the Mayor.

“Didn’t actually happen?” Mr. Giuliani remarked, shrugging playfully. “Testing, testing, testing,” he said into a microphone. “Did that work now? Did that actually happen? That didn’t happen either.”

Another reporter suggested that they resume without the cameras.

“Okay,” Mr. Giuliani said, in a tone of mock warning. “But it won’t really happen.”

If Mr. Giuliani continues in this vein, it’s likely to change the dynamics of the Senate race. Aides to Mrs. Clinton have said that a key to their strategy is to bait Mr. Giuliani into ugly temper tantrums. Up until late April, the tactic appeared to be working: Mr. Giuliani was dropping in the polls, and his approval rating in New York City, where he needs a third of the vote to win a statewide race, had sunk to record lows.

But Mr. Giuliani’s appearances in Buffalo and Saratoga suggest that Mrs. Clinton will have to revamp this strategy. Take, for example, his appearance in Saratoga. Before the event, Mr. Giuliani mingled with the crowd, and he seemed to be savoring a new sensation: being on the receiving end of genuine expressions of sympathy and caring. As his campaign manager Bruce Teitelbaum tailed him attentively, Mr. Giuliani paused with well-wishers to accept handshakes and slaps on the back. He urged them to take multiple pictures.

“I’m from Bay Ridge,” one middle-aged man said.

“Bay Ridge!” the Mayor shouted, happily.

“I came all the way here to see you speak,” the man said.

And the next day, as he wrapped up his event in Buffalo, he paused to reflect on the good things that had happened to him of late.

“I feel tremendous support, and I feel very, very lucky,” Mr. Giuliani told the crowd, sounding like something out of It’s a Wonderful Life . “I’m the mayor of the biggest city in America. And I have millions of people there and millions of people elsewhere that are wishing me well and praying for me.”

As the Mayor spoke, Mr. Teitelbaum was watching from the sidelines, his sunny expression a far cry from the wan, stricken look he had as he watched the Mayor announce his illness the previous day.

“There’s just a tremendous amount of support,” the Mayor concluded. “And I’m very fortunate.”

He sounded sincere and humble. It’s a Wonderful Rudy: Softer, Gentler Mayor Has a Reborn Campaign