The Surprising Reason for Rudy's Stumble

So far, Rudy Giuliani is losing the Republican presidential race just as badly as skeptics predicted more than a year

So far, Rudy Giuliani is losing the Republican presidential race just as badly as skeptics predicted more than a year ago. But that doesn’t mean they were right about everything.

In the run-up to the 2008 campaign, pundits incessantly assured us that a Giuliani bid would be a nonstarter because of his social liberalism. The support for abortion rights, devotion to gun control and full-on embrace of gay rights that facilitated two election victories in New York City, supposedly, would repulse the right and render Rudy a toxic commodity in most G.O.P. primaries and caucuses.

But the story of Mr. Giuliani’s demise—which will be complete if he doesn’t somehow win in next week’s Florida primary—has little to do with social issues. In fact, there is considerable evidence that the bulk of the G.O.P. base, however reluctantly, was actually prepared to rally around the former mayor had he maintained the front-runner’s perch he held for most of 2007.

That he faltered says much more about the former mayor’s other shortcomings—personal and professional sloppiness dating back to his mayoral days, an ill-fitting campaign theme, an uninspiring and almost apologetic style in debates and a strategy that neutered his public personality for fear of letting voters see Angry Rudy—than his ideological differences with the Christian right.

For one thing, the initial skepticism about Mr. Giuliani’s campaign reflected a condescending oversimplification of who and what the religious right is and how its members vote, the result of a national political media that has allowed a handful of Christian conservative “leaders” to define their flock as a single-minded entity that regards abortion and homosexuality as the foremost issues in any election.

In truth, there is about as much variety of opinion among the millions of religious conservatives as there is among any group of voters.

The rise of Mike Huckabee, which has come about in the face of lukewarm support and even outright hostility from the Christian right’s traditional leadership, is powerful evidence of this diversity of opinion. So is the support that John McCain, who once branded Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance,” received from evangelical voters in South Carolina last Saturday: Nearly 30 percent in a six-way race, not too far off Mr. Huckabee’s pace.

In other words, the ’08 campaign, no matter how the obituaries might ultimately read, was not a hopeless undertaking for Rudy Giuliani.

Remember that he held a large lead in national and many individual state polls until just over a month ago—long after the Republican base learned of his apostasies on social issues. This reflected the heroic image of Rudy created by 9/11, his presumed electability against Hillary Clinton and the glaring deficiencies of his chief Republican rivals, all of whom were viewed with hesitation by the party’s base.

And when John McCain, whose independent streak appealed to many of the voters the Giuliani campaign was banking on, seemed to collapse over the summer, Rudy’s nomination chances looked rosy: He’d win (or fare well) in New Hampshire, boosted by Mr. McCain’s former base of independents, follow it up with wins in Florida and perhaps even South Carolina, and go into Feb. 5—with all of its winner-take-all primaries in massive, Rudy-friendly states—with a head of steam. All the while, he’d slowly reel in religious conservatives who may not have made him their first choice but who would find him acceptable—and electable—enough.

His road map to the nomination, in fact, looked much like the one that Mr. McCain is now following with considerable success. What ruined Mr. Giuliani was his failure to capitalize over the summer and early fall, when the party was essentially his for the taking. That allowed Mr. McCain to sneak back into contention and to supplant Rudy as the maverick who nonetheless corrals the base.

The Rudy that America saw on 9/11 was confident, decisive, resolute and even human. But the candidate Republicans met was subdued and docile, trying to coast on his reputation without saying anything that might offend a single Republican voter. He staked out no bold positions, assumed a largely defensive crouch in debates and sought to portray his campaign as a struggle to stay “on offense” against “Islamic terrorism,” a theme that hardly fit his mayoral background. The pesky Bernie Kerik and Judith Nathan issues also slowed his momentum, as did the lifeless, watered-down demeanor that he showed in public.

Mr. Giuliani’s undoing comes down to personality. John McCain wasn’t afraid to show some. Rudy was. And Republicans made their choice. The Surprising Reason for Rudy's Stumble