Des Moines--He is a pro-choice, thrice-married New Yorker. So why is Rudy Giuliani the leading presidential candidate in a Republican Party long dominated by pro-life, family-values voters in the South and West?
Iowa state legislator Mary Lundby, who calls herself a liberal Republican, offers one possibility. “Many Republicans have questioned whether our entire party focus should be on social issues,” says Ms. Lundby, who has signed onto Mr. Giuliani’s Iowa presidential campaign as a co-chairwoman. This year, she is increasingly hearing from Republicans whose greater interest is the economy or national defense, she says.
“Is it a groundswell? No,” she concedes. “But we didn’t get where we are in a day, either.”
Don’t look for the party to make a sudden leap to the middle, or to turn its back on its religious and social conservatives. But Mr. Giuliani’s lead in the polls—and in the latest round of fund raising, according to new reports Tuesday—may hint at the declining clout of those voters and their issues within the Republican party, and perhaps a shift back toward a more libertarian emphasis.
If so, Mr. Giuliani’s candidacy could be helping to redefine the Republican party, just as Ronald Reagan’s did in 1980, when pundits initially dismissed Mr. Reagan as too conservative for his party’s mainstream.
Former Iowa Republican Rep. James Leach now sees the party divided between “individual-rights conservatives versus social-issue conservatives. This is an exceptionally interesting phenomenon,” he adds. He himself earned the enmity of the religious right in 2006 after he criticized it for attacking his opponent over gay rights, and he lost his seat. He hasn’t endorsed any candidate yet in the 2008 race.
There are other reasons for Mr. Giuliani’s lead, of course. The war in Iraq and spending scandals in Washington focus on Mr. Giuliani’s perceived strengths—fiscally conservative and hawkish on national security. “Different issues come to the forefront at different times. Those are his issues, and those are the times,” says Jeff Lamberti, an Iowa Republican Party official who has endorsed Arizona Sen. John McCain.
It is also still early in the campaign cycle, and Mr. Giuliani’s nomination is far from assured. He hasn’t defied the religious right as much as he has skirted social issues that are important to them by promising, for example, to appoint “strict constructionist” judges—a term often used as code for jurists who would favor curbs on abortion.
Only 43% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters could identify him as the pro-choice candidate in a recent Pew Research Center poll. Even those who said abortion is “very important” to them weren’t aware of his stand.
That won’t last long: Mr. Giuliani’s Republican opponents all are running on pro-life platforms. The same week Mr. Giuliani was in Des Moines recently, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback was making his own swing through eastern Iowa, where he talked in passing about immigration, a flat tax and cancer research. But what his audience clearly wanted to hear about was Mr. Brownback’s opposition to abortion, an issue he compared to slavery as “a moral struggle.” “We gotta get life right, we got to get marriage right,” he told a small but wildly cheering crowd.
Mr. Giuliani’s campaign also has benefited from the lack of a prominent Southern social conservative in the race, although that would change with the expected entry of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Mr. Giuliani leads the Republican field, but with only 29% compared with 20% for Mr. Thompson.
Quarterly fund-raising reports released this week show Mr. Giuliani also led in the three months ended June 30, raising $15 million for the nomination contest, ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s $14 million and Mr. McCain’s $11 million. In the first quarter, Mr. Romney bested the former New York mayor on this front.
In Iowa, a Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa caucus goers—who tend by a wide margin to be conservative—shows Mr. Romney ahead of Mr. Giuliani, 30% to 17%. But those same voters ranked terrorism and national security as their leading concerns, above sixth-place abortion.
Mr. Giuliani regularly tells audiences that “keeping America on offense against terrorism” is his first concern, a line that draws applause and refocuses attention on his national-security stance. But he is also now honing his message on the economy, where his record is less well known. In a speech in Des Moines recently, he tackled such nitty-gritty as government accounting methods.
“This is the way a president has to think,” he told the rapt audience after explaining how he would save $21 billion a year by trimming the federal work force.
He also disarmingly gives audiences permission to disagree with him on some issues—a trait rarely evinced during his mayoral terms—but still support his campaign. “I don’t agree with us on everything,” he regularly adds. That message appeals to Republicans who fear a 2008 drubbing if the party focuses too narrowly on family-values issues, as it did in the past two presidential races.
“We need a more moderate party that concentrates on economic issues,” said Thomas Brady, a computer programmer and Army reservist who attended a recent $10-a-head campaign breakfast for Mr. Giuliani in Wilmington, Del. “Nothing got me more angry” than the party’s focus on social issues in 2000 and 2004, he added.
Iowa state Sen. Jeff Angelo describes himself as a pro-life evangelical but signed on to the Giuliani campaign after concluding that the former mayor is the only Republican who could beat New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton if she were to win the Democratic nomination.
“The Republican party is beginning to realize it can’t win without coalitions,” he says. In any event, Mr. Giuliani’s policies are “75% in step with the party,” he adds.
Such pleas for flexibility aren’t necessarily going to play with the party’s social right as Mr. Giuliani’s views and record become more widely known. Rick Scarborough, a politically active Texas evangelist, says the Christian right is dismayed by government spending and the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war. But because of what he calls Mr. Giuliani’s “radical leftist” social stands, “we will not rally around him,” he adds.
In solidly Republican southwestern Iowa, Joni Ernst, the Montgomery County auditor and a Republican Party activist who is backing Mr. Romney, said Mr. Giuliani’s refusal to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq “might sway some. But abortion is a lot to overcome.”
But Ms. Lundby, the Republican lawmaker, sees Mr. Giuliani piquing the interest of women, urbanites and Republican-leaning independents, who she says lost interest in the party because of its focus on social issues. Those voters are most concerned with pocketbook issues, she says, and many “think the party lost its way.”