Rudy Giuliani: the leading GOP candidate

Rudy GiulianiI woke up the other morning and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani was the Republican front-runner for the 2008 presidential race. How in the world did that happen? Heavy media coverage of "Rudy's rise" came in over the weekend -- first in a Washington Post A1 piece by Dan Balz and second in a Newsweek cover article by Jonathan Darman. As an aside, does it look like Newsweek and the Post look at each other for direction in terms of stories? The whole Army medical centers scandal was on the cover of Newsweek at the same time the Post was rolling out its expose. I know they're owned by the same company, but aren't their news budgets kept separate? As Terry pointed out to me, maybe spouses talk at night.

Anyway, back to America's Mayor. The big question for journalists covering his candidacy is whether Giuliani can garner the support of religious conservatives, who have come to be defined as the core of the GOP. There are two sources of disgust most religious conservatives would have for Giuliani. One is his views on the culture wars. Supporting abortion rights and gay rights isn't going to win too many friends in Colorado Springs.

The second source, and perhaps more pernicious, is Giuliani's personal morality. Newsweek's Darman drew out that aspect using a quote from Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention:

As Giuliani campaigns to protect the country from disaster, he will have to account for calamities from his own past and of his own making. Twice divorced, he has lived a life more to the tastes of New York tabloid editors than evangelical voters in South Carolina. "I can guarantee you that the majority of Southern Baptists will not vote for Giuliani," says Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. "President Truman said he would never hire someone who cheated on his wife, because if a person breaks his marriage oath he could also break his oath of office."

Giuliani isn't talking about it either. He is known to be obsessive regarding the coverage he receives and has a history of being combative with reporters. Those covering his campaign should not allow that attitude to keep them from asking questions in this realm, though. Just as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's Mormon faith is relevant to his campaign, Giuliani's personal past, and more obviously his stance on the culture wars, is relevant to his candidacy.

Everyone knows that Giuliani is a no-nonsense kind of guy who likes to get things done. The man doesn't suffer fools. He is a Catholic. With those factors in mind, how would Giuliani address the question of captured suspected terrorists? What are his views on torture and indefinite detention? Those issues do not rank high right now in the trinity of issues for religious conservatives (abortion, gays and stem cells), but they will come up, and knowing his position on these matters could tip the scales for a segment of the pew vote.

Giuliani also lacks a "compassionate conservative" agenda. This was a hallmark of President Bush's campaign, and is what drew many religious-minded people to support him and believe he was genuinely one of them. The type of domestic agenda Giuliani is inclined to bring into office has yet to be covered in the big media, but Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam cornered it in a recent piece in The Weekly Standard that brings us the term "respect conservatism":

Giuliani, by contrast, has always been a "respect" conservative. Delivering safe streets to New Yorkers wasn't an act of magnanimity, but rather an obligation. And, as Giuliani made clear, citizens and public servants were expected to fulfill their obligations as well. Anyone who failed to abide by this basic contract, whether a petty thief or a police commander who failed to meet crime-reduction targets, would be held accountable.

... An emblematic moment came in July 1999 when Giuliani, increasingly unpopular over a series of police shootings, faced off on his call-in radio program against Margarita Rosario, the mother of a young man who had been shot and killed by two detectives four years earlier. Rather than accept Rosario's version of events, Giuliani challenged her at every turn, carefully recounting the details of her son's encounter with the police and his long rap sheet. At one point, he bluntly suggested the blame for her son's death might lie with her own poor parenting: "Maybe you should ask yourself some questions about the way he was brought up and the things that happened to him."

It's difficult to imagine a "compassionate conservative" saying anything like this. And such impolitic honesty helps explain why Giuliani spent much of his second term as an unpopular figure -- in spite of plunging crime rates and welfare rolls, and New York's economic comeback -- before 9/11 transformed him into "America's mayor." Once Giuliani tamed the ungovernable city, he suddenly seemed too tough and hard-edged even for New York.

Giuliani's personal life, his views on abortion rights, gay rights and stem cells will get a lot of media attention in the coming weeks as he sorts out what it is like to be the leading GOP candidate for 2008. But reporters could find a wealth of under-covered material in Giuliani's view of government (why no more compassionate conservatism?) and on the war on terror (to torture or not to torture?) that resonates deeply with large sections of the pew vote.

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