Heading into the post-Labor Day sprint to the primaries, Rudy Giuliani has utterly defied the pundits who predicted that Republican voters would never accept a twice divorced, pro-choice New Yorker.
Rather than wilt, Mr. Giuliani has cemented his lead in national polls and in South Carolina—one of the most conservative states in the country. The latest Diageo/Hotline poll shows that he not only leads his closest competitor Fred Thompson by 10 points, but also leads among Evangelicals by the same margin and is up by six points among voters who believe abortion should be banned entirely.
Why did the pundits and many conservative critics get it so wrong, and why is Mr. Giuliani scoring so well with died hard conservatives?
First, conservatives may have come to recognize that on abortion the action is in the courts. Mr. Giuliani's state chairs in Florida (former congressman Bill McCollum) and in Michigan ( Rep. Candice Miller)—both pro-lifers—have said that Mr. Giuliani's pledge to appoint more Scalia, Roberts and Alito-type justices satisfied their concerns.
While red-hot rhetoric on abortion may be emotionally satisfying, conservatives have become more sophisticated and savvy about just what a president can do. Indeed, after Mr. Giuliani’s visit to Regent University in June, none other than Pat Robertson praised the former mayor’s commitment to appoint conservative judges and declared that “abortion should not be something that the President has anything to do with, it should not be a national issue, never should have been. Roe v. Wade was a mistake. They shouldn’t have brought that up into the federal level, it should have been kept at the state level.” Mr. Giuliani is banking that what is good enough for Pat Robertson may be good enough for G.O.P. primary voters.
Second, Mr. Giuliani has made a career of battling liberal icons in New York—the media, the ACLU, Al Sharpton—who they loath. The enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend philophy goes a long way in politics, and for frustrated conservatives looking to defend themselves from a resurgent American left, he is one of the most articulate and battle-tested politicians around.
Third, Mr. Giuliani has figured out that as was the case during the Cold War, conservatives once again care greatly about foreign threats—even to the exclusion of other important issues. It is no coincidence that he dares the Democrats to use the phrase “Islamic Terrorism” in each debate. Whether as a symbol of their dichotomized view of a good-versus-evil world or because of a genuine fear of attack, conservatives have embraced Mr. Giuliani not only for his prominence on 9-11 but his outspoken aggressiveness on foreign policy now. (See the way his support has been energized when he has bashed Ron Paul or John Edwards for failing to appreciate the dangers America faces.)
Fourth, conservatives are panicked. Hillary Clinton—who instills a fear verging on hysteria among conservatives—is pulling away from the Democratic pack in national polls and leads in match-ups against all of Mr. Giuliani's G.O.P. competitors. If Mr. Giuliani offers the possibility of winning some electoral votes that his opponents cannot, conservatives may be willing to stomach a few detours from ideological orthodoxy.
And fifth, Republicans have been humiliated one too many times by the Bush administration Whether it was Alberto Gonzales or Katrina or Walter Reed or the mismanaged Iraq war that pushed them over the edge, Mr. Giuliani offers the hope that an executive who governed New York City could return competency to the G.O.P. brand. Conservatives who believe it’s important for a president to be able to govern and not just pontificate may well be ready to embrace a candidate whose rhetoric is infused with terms like "accountability" and "Compstat."
Mr. Giuliani certainly does not have the nomination in the bag yet. Mitt Romney is gathering momentum and Fred Thompson may yet get his act together and convince Republican voters that only a conventional conservative will hold the party together. But in the end the pundits may have missed a significant development in Republican politics: the maturation of many conservative primary-goers.
In desperate times—and times are desperate for the G.O.P.—they may be willing to think strategically and embrace an unconventional nominee. Judging by the support Mr. Giuliani has managed to attract and maintain so far, the conventional wisdom about what conservatives want—or, more precisely, what they don’t—needs to be thrown out the window.