American Rudy: Hot Dog Wants to Be Corn Dog

Rudy Giuliani now comes in a new package. Social conservatives still aren’t buying it. “It’s a sleight of hand,” said

Rudy Giuliani now comes in a new package. Social conservatives still aren’t buying it.

“It’s a sleight of hand,” said Bob Barr, a former Georgia Congressman and champion of small government. “On issues that I consider extremely important to conservatives, such as respect for the Second Amendment, he is nowhere near even remotely in the ballpark of a conservative philosophy.”

The famously resolute, plain-spoken and uncompromising former Mayor has unveiled new shades of nuance to go along with his historically liberal positions on abortion, gun control and gay marriage, which pose the major obstacles to his pursuit of the Republican nomination for President in 2008.

But as he inches up to an official declaration of his candidacy—he’ll be campaigning among Southern primary voters in South Carolina on Wednesday—Mr. Giuliani has his work cut out for him. This is, after all, the thrice-married Mayor who once lived with a gay couple, who supported the Brady bill and who once said of abortion, “I’d give my daughter money for it.”

The trick is that Mr. Giuliani’s newly articulated, conservative-sounding positions have been carefully calibrated to appeal to a conservative base without definitively contradicting any of his past statements, which would run the risk of undercutting his iconic image as the unwavering leader of Sept. 11.

The result has been a somewhat dizzying dose of coded talk and footnoted arguments from Mr. Giuliani and his political surrogates.

On Feb. 14, Mr. Giuliani conceded to Larry King on CNN, “I am pro-choice, yes,” but he quickly added that he would only appoint strict constructionist judges to the federal courts.

His campaign invited national reporters onto a conference call earlier this month with Representative Candice S. Miller of Michigan, who, despite Mr. Giuliani’s strong record on gun control as Mayor, said he assured her that “he is a very strong supporter of the Second Amendment.”

Mr. Giuliani, who signed something called the Domestic Partnership Law when he was Mayor, now stresses the notion that marriage is sacred and should be between a man and a woman.

“I have watched this process,” said Dick Armey, the former House Majority Leader and a principal author of the “Contract with America” that helped bring about the 1994 Republican revolution. “He is somewhat artfully juxtaposing one small-government conservative value against the other.”

In a Republican field without a conservative champion who is both viable and impeccably credentialed, Mr. Giuliani is betting that primary voters will be willing to endure his complicated explanations.

“In politics, you’ve got to go with what you have. It’s the only hand they could play on this one,” said Charles W. Dunn, dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University, a school founded by the Christian conservative Pat Robertson, where Mr. Giuliani is scheduled to give a speech in April. “It could be a successful hand.”

So far, at least, it seems to be paying off. A Fox News poll of 900 registered voters released last week showed Mr. Giuliani crushing Mr. McCain, 56 percent to 31 percent, among Republicans. Forty-two percent of the Republican respondents were aware that Mr. Giuliani was pro-choice.

Some of Mr. Giuliani’s supporters argue that he might not even need social conservatives to win the nomination in 2008.

“The hard-right conservatives are a very small percentage of the electorate today,” said Barron Thomas, a Giuliani supporter and former “Pioneer” fund-raiser for George W. Bush.

Either way, Mr. Giuliani’s campaign firmly rejects the notion that he had shifted in any way to appeal to conservatives. If the Mayor is giving new answers, the argument goes, it’s simply because no one ever asked him the right questions.

“You now have to talk about things in a larger scale than you did in the past, because when asked these questions in the past, he was Mayor, and he couldn’t affect certain things,” said Anthony Carbonetti, a senior advisor to Mr. Giuliani. “He’s explaining more fully what he has always thought, but now they are relevant to the position he is seeking.”

Mr. Carbonetti also argued that Mr. Giuliani wouldn’t be able to get away with changing his core beliefs.

“It would be disingenuous for him to say something he didn’t believe in,” said Mr. Carbonetti. “I believe there would be a backlash for that.”

Mr. Carbonetti’s insinuation seemed clear enough: Mitt Romney, the former governor of left-leaning Massachusetts, used to support both gay rights and abortion rights. He is now opposed to both, and he joined the National Rifle Association just months before announcing his candidacy.

Meanwhile, Senator John McCain reminded the Republican base this weekend of his conservative credentials by pledging to overturn Roe v. Wade. Mr. McCain has been trying to improve relations with evangelical Christians after dubbing Jerry Falwell an “agent of intolerance” during his 2000 bid, but recently suffered a setback when Christian leader James Dobson said that he could not support the McCain campaign.

John Weaver, a senior strategist to Mr. McCain, pushed right back, suggesting that it was unfair to compare his candidate’s appeals to the party’s conservative base with the apparent overtures of Mr. Giuliani.

“He is a conservative,” Mr. Weaver said of Mr. McCain. “He doesn’t have to shift rhetorically or be nuanced or explain away anything. He has a record that he is proud of.”

Pushed by Conservatives

Mr. Giuliani’s new articulation of his previously unuttered beliefs coincides with a push by some influential conservative opinion-makers to establish his bona fides, and to do so on his particular terms. The winter edition of City Journal, a quarterly magazine published by the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute, went out this month with a nearly 6,000-word manifesto headlined “Yes, Rudy Giuliani Is a Conservative,” which argued that his successes cutting taxes and reducing crime in New York City should be all the qualification he needs.

And Deroy Murdock, a contributing editor at the National Review Online and a vocal supporter of Mr. Giuliani, wrote on Feb. 9 that “New York’s former mayor is the leading fiscal conservative among 2008’s GOP presidential contenders.” That followed a piece a month earlier, entitled “Giuliani’s Abortion Record Should Hearten Pro-Lifers.”

“There is not much an American President can do on abortion,” Mr. Murdock said in a telephone interview. “What they can do is appoint judges.”

Still, such arguments can come across as academic—as clever, counterintuitive theses generated by intellectual conservatives that don’t actually square with the more visceral perception of him among the values-centric base.

“He’s definitely not a social conservative,” said Tom Minnery, senior vice president for public policy for Focus on the Family. “He is pro-abortion; he is friendly to same-sex marriage; and his personal life is a problem. I have seen photos of him in drag.”

When reminded that Mr. Giuliani had appeared in drag as part of a comic performance for an audience of reporters and political insiders, Mr. Minnery said, “That gag may work on Manhattan Island, not on the mainland.”

Asked about Mr. Giuliani’s assertion that he would appoint only conservative judges despite being personally pro-choice, Mr. Minnery responded: “That creates cognitive dissonance—either he supports abortion or he opposes it. It sounds like he is trying to split the baby in half, as it were.”

Things don’t get any easier for Mr. Giuliani with gun-rights advocates.

Mr. Barr dismissed as illogical Mr. Giuliani’s argument that the interpretation of the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” should be left up to individual states and municipalities.

“They’re not going to accept his explanation that we have to practice gun control in New York, not in Boise,” said Mr. Barr.

“Just dancing into a room and saying, ‘I’m America’s Mayor, I’m America’s Mayor’— that’s not going to cut it with Second Amendment people, I’ll tell you that.”

A Pragmatic Way

Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, who used to run the famous weekly strategy sessions that shaped a national conservative agenda, thinks that Mr. Giuliani may have hit on a reasonable way forward.

“If you are speaking to a pro-lifer who is serious about his cause, he wants one thing and only one thing from the President of the United States: judges,” he said. “That’s the only thing you need from him. The rest is only so much fluff.”

Such sentiments seem to ratify the validity of the course that some of Mr. Giuliani’s supporters have been urging for months. Back in October, one frighteningly prescient pro-Giuliani blogger urged the former Mayor to emphasize the appointment of judges as a way to placate pro-life voters without explicitly going back on his track record of pro-choice positions.

“Rudy MUST pledge to appoint strict constructionist judges to the Federal bench,” wrote the anonymous (and appropriately named) RudyBlogger on the unapologetically partisan Giuliani Blog, adding: “Ultimately, the judges argument is a VERY good fit for Rudy because it fits with his prosecutorial, criminal justice background.”

This may just be a time when conservatives are prepared to live with such compromises. After enduring a disastrous setback in the 2006 midterm elections, some conservatives are resigned to supporting whichever candidate has the best chance of beating Hillary Clinton in a general election.

“Conservatives right now are hungry,” said Mr. Dunn. “You can overlook some issue differences in order to win.”

The question is: When do those differences simply become too great?

Mr. Norquist suggested that Mr. Giuliani’s recent pronouncements on abortion and guns did not yet add up to a platform that social conservatives could embrace.

“He has not yet specifically enunciated a position that passes muster on the right-to-life issue,” Mr. Norquist said. “And he needs to do something on the gun issue that makes people comfortable with him.”

Bill Lauderback, executive vice president of the American Conservative Union, a conservative grassroots organization, grades members of Congress on how they vote on conservative issues. His personal take was that even if Mr. Giuliani voted for abortion rights, gay rights and gun control, he could still be considered a conservative if he proved himself on taxes, defense and crime.

But, he said, “clearly there are those in the conservative movement whose primary issue set are abortion, gay marriage and gun control. For conservatives who consider themselves social conservatives first before all else, those would clearly say: ‘Rudy Giuliani is not one of us.’”

American Rudy: Hot Dog  Wants to Be Corn Dog