When the curtain parted at Washington's Mayflower Hotel and "America's mayor" and crime-fighter-in-chief Rudy Giuliani bounded into the room, a thousand lawyers jumped to their feet in thunderous welcome. It was hard to find a black or even an Asian face in the pumped-up crowd, but some of the highest-flying partners of Washington DC's legal establishment and lobbying outfits were up at the front of the room hoping to be noticed. Among American liberals, it is still fashionable to dismiss Giuliani's run for the White House as a non-starter. "Nobody with a vowel at the end of their name will ever be elected president of this country," the hostess of a Washington dinner party caustically remarked. She was referring, of course, to the mobster shadows hovering in the background of Giuliani's Brooklyn upbringing.
Frank "the Butcher of Broadway" Rich is no mafia hit- man. Rather, he is the New York Times theatre critic turned searing political columnist. Rich was more politically correct than my DC hostess but just as damning when he opined that, "New Yorkers who remember Giuliani as the bullying New York mayor... have always banked on one certainty: his presidential candidacy was so preposterous it would implode before he got anywhere near the White House."
Rolling Stone magazine is another Giuliani-hating publication, with one recent article whining that Giuliani was: "virtually neckless, all shoulders and forehead and overbite, with a hunched-over, Draculoid posture that recalls, oddly enough, George W Bush". Suffice it to say that the American left is not very keen on Rudy and that the media establishment is in denial about the prospect of him taking the White House.
This is already set to be the most expensive election in history, with a billion dollars spent promoting and knocking down candidates. But liberal Americans have comforted themselves that Giuliani is essentially unelectable outside New York. They point to a leaked "vulnerability study" commissioned by Giuliani's 1993 campaign for mayor, which said voters would be put off by the "weirdness factor" due to his first marriage, to his second cousin. Conventional wisdom has it that the Republican base will not elect a candidate who is in favour of gun control. Christian conservatives will never forgive the fact that Giuliani courted the gay vote while running for mayor and even shacked up with a gay couple for a time. What the liberal pundits who have written off Giuliani's candidacy are missing is the degree to which terrorism and the fear of Islamic radicals among Republican voters trumps some "value issues" such as gay marriage and abortion. Giuliani realised before most that for many God-fearing Americans the war on terror is a religious issue, and that is why he speaks about it in apocalyptic terms.
Evidence that evangelical leaders agree with him came in November when the televangelist Pat Robertson who believes that the West is in a religious war with Islam endorsed Giuliani despite his pro-Choice stance. In one stunning act, the most widely known preacher in America tossed away the sacred principles of his movement for a suspiciously liberal lapsed Catholic. Robertson explained his support for the pro-gun-control, abortion-supporting, pro-gay-rights candidate saying: "The overriding issue... is the defence of our population from the bloodlust of Islamic terrorists." It was a statement, the New Yorker said, that brought to mind the moment when Borat told a rodeo audience in Virginia: "May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman, and child of Iraq."
I sought out another opinion from a Christian conservative political appointee of the Bush administration. In the wood-paneled locker-room of the University Club he made the point that Giuliani's main Republican opponent, former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, is distrusted by the Christian right because he is Mormon. Romney, he said, was a "dead man walking". Christian conservatives may not warm to Giuliani's ethnic New York liberal ways, but like Pat Robertson they are attracted to the Giuliani message of taking the fight to the Islamic terrorists.
Rudy Giuliani's may be one of the most remarkable political transformations of our time. When he declared in a 1999 news conference that his second marriage to the former television presenter Donna Hanover was over he, like Romney, was declared a political corpse. The Giuliani narrative has it that during a brilliant first term as New York mayor, the Superman-like crime-busting strategy he espoused drove criminals from the city's streets. He also ended a democratic culture of handouts, stripping back the city's welfare rolls, and took 600,000 people off government support. He dealt with problems by cutting, not raising, taxes and business flooded back to the city.
But by the time of the 9/11 attacks he was increasingly seen as an eccentric mayor. New York's black community despised his heavy handed policing of its neighbourhoods. When Giuliani ordered a crackdown on jaywalkers, street hawkers, speeding bicycle messengers and reckless taxi drivers, the city's Democratic voters who had voted him in through gritted teeth turned on him. When he tried and failed to cut off funds to the Brooklyn Museum, which was staging the "Sensation" art show he had called "sick stuff", he became something of an international figure of fun.
After he dumped Hanover, his children became estranged from him. Even today, his 17-year-old daughter Caroline Giuliani a Harvard student supports Barack Obama for president. She and her 21-year-old brother Andrew have barely spoken to their father since her mother learnt from the television of his intention to split with her and take up with Judith Nathan, a divorced saleswoman of hospital products.
Ever since Judith met Giuliani at a New York cigar bar called Club Macanudo, and he said goodbye to his family life, he has been a happier, if more controversial, figure. A couple of times Giuliani has said that Judith, now his wife, will be "sitting in at cabinet meetings", if and when he is elected president and the media are already describing her as a domineering woman who fires staff members and generally calls all the shots in his campaigns. But as Michelle, the wife of Barack Obama has said, "If you can't run a family, how can you be expected to run the White House?"
Controversy over Judith reared its head again when it was recently revealed that while they were having an affair back in 1999, Giuliani arranged for her to have police security and a car. When she was too busy to use her car and driver, she would offer it as a service to friends to go shopping. Giuliani hid the evidence. This revelation caused his poll ratings to slip for the first time. The public are only now starting to get a peek at the real Giuliani rather than the hero of 9/11. '
When the Village Voice investigative reporter Wayne Barrett wrote City for Sale in 1989, he was so impressed by the dashing young federal prosecutor who relentlessly chased down mafia kingpins that he made Giuliani the hero of his book. But by the time Barrett's biography Rudy! was published in 2000 he had unearthed a darker side of the candidate. Now out of print, the 500-page forensic investigation is the most definitive account to date of Giuliani's extraordinary life story. Every subsequent profile of the former mayor has borrowed heavily from it.
In one passage towards the end of Rudy! Barrett sums up the man who would be president: "The father he [Giuliani] celebrated so often was a pathological predator. His extended family harboured a junkie, a crooked cop and a murky mob wing. He dissolved his first marriage with a lie so he could appear Catholic when he remarried. The very personal jewelery his first wife found in her bedroom wasn't hers..."
It was sometimes hard to reconcile the erudite and persuasive presidential candidate who addressed some of the country's most senior lawyers and judges that afternoon in the Mayflower Hotel with the egomaniacal control freak who emerges from Barrett's book. Giuliani's family history is an up-by-the-bootstraps tale of immigration from Italy. It is a tale of hard knocks and finally success, when first as a federal prosecutor he became the scourge of the mafia and then as mayor he rescued a city in apparently terminal decline.
Little known by the public is the fact that four of Giuliani's uncles were New York cops and an uncle, Leo D'Avanzo, was a loan shark with mob connections who worked from a restaurant, Vincent's, that was fronted by one of his policeman uncles. Rudy's father, Harold, was a small-time thug who worked behind the bar puffing on a cigar as he fixed cocktails. A snappy dresser, he kept a .38-calibre revolver by the cash register and made liberal use of a baseball bat he kept behind the bar. He was the enforcer for his brother-in-law who owned the restaurant and used the bat and his fists to collect debts by breaking legs and smashing kneecaps. He was eventually arrested and sentenced to Sing Sing prison for robbing a milkman in an apartment block.
Implausibly, all this was "news" to Giuliani who says he only discovered the details of his father's career as a hood when Barrett's book was published in 2000.
The attack on the Twin Towers changed everything for Giuliani and, it is widely agreed, brought out the best in him. While George W Bush was flying around incommunicado on Air Force One, Giuliani brought the city back together with his calm and reassuring tones. In the process, he quickly became a global symbol of resilience against terrorism.
When his term was up he parlayed this experience into a $30m fortune. He became a bestselling author, skipping around the world in a Learjet giving speeches at $100,000 a time. But it is as a lobbyist and security consultant for foreign regimes, including Qatar, which is accused of sheltering suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that Giuliani has made most of his money.
His firm, Bracewell & Giuliani, also represents some of America's greatest polluters and contributors to global warming. It is the face of aggressive energy industry lobbying in Washington and it is hardly surprising that Giuliani is a global-warming sceptic. If elected president, he can be expected to maintain the Bush administration's ostrich-like approach to the problem.
Giuliani has now staked his presidential hopes on foreign policy and the idea that he alone can keep America safe from terror just as he kept New York City safe from crime with ruthless efficiency. At virtually every campaign stop, Giuliani likes to tell audiences of the great job he did turning New York around in the 1990s. He enjoys telling the story of how he visited London before he was elected mayor and saw a brochure that British tourists to New York were being given containing 10 tips to avoid becoming yet another New York crime statistic. "You know what the last tip was?" Giuliani asks his audiences. "'Don't make eye contact.' Can you imagine going to a city and being told you shouldn't look at anyone?"
Even his enemies accept that Giuliani's in-your-face management style helped sort out the city. Crime fell dramatically and as people were taken off welfare, business started returning to the city. That's the sort of record that makes Republicans sit up and listen. George W Bush's legacy may be of military adventures gone wrong and a housing mortgage crisis that is wiping away the retirement wealth of a generation of Americans. But they are just as keen as ever to keep Democratic hands off the White House especially Hillary's.
Giuliani's seductive message which appeals to Republicans and floating Democrats alike is that only he knows how to deal with Islamic terrorists. He has staked his presidential hopes on that simple idea. Conservative Americans don't argue that the invasion of Iraq was wrong, just that it was mishandled by George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. Giuliani set out his stall in a recent essay for Foreign Affairs magazine: "I know from personal experience that when security is reliably established in a troubled part of a city, normal life rapidly re-establishes itself. The same is true in world affairs. Disorder in the world's bad neighbourhoods tends to spread. Tolerating bad behaviour breeds more bad behaviour."
In Giuliani's world-view a recalcitrant country such as Iran would quickly feel America's military fist if it misbehaved by reactivating its nuclear weapons programme. He has no time for the soft power route of the UN Security Council. No, the question is whether Giuliani can win the Republican nomination despite his New York baggage and then attract Democratic voters with his tough message on security.
There are 11 months left in the campaign and although Giuliani leads in the national polls against his rival Republicans, the race is tightening and they are closing fast. He will do poorly in Iowa on 3 January where the Christian conservatives are flirting with the populist Mike Huckabee, a former televangelist and ex-Governor of Arkansas. But so, the polls indicate, will the leading Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. So the race will move to New Hampshire on 8 January and then to South Carolina on 19 January, where by tradition the eventual nominee of both parties should start to emerge. By 5 February Tsunami Tuesday when 20 states vote, the selection process will be over and the race for the White House will start in earnest.
In these fearful times for Americans as the economy worsens and the news from distant wars is bad the ramparts have been drawn up and people are hunkered down in uncertainty and fear. Americans who once travelled the world can no longer afford to and in any event are fearful that they could pay a high price. In such times, Giuliani's message is strangely reassuring to audiences. Until the attacks of September 11 2001, he seemed blithely unaware that his city was a target of Islamic terrorists. They had tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 just before his election as mayor. But it took the 9/11 attacks for Giuliani to immerse himself in the details of the Islamic terrorist threat. Now a self-declared expert on the subject of terrorism, he plays it for all he is worth. His every sentence, according to his Democratic rival Senator Joseph Biden, now consists of "a noun and a verb and 9/11".
Biden's subtlety is lost on most Americans, and Giuliani hams it up on the campaign trail and talks about his cleaning up of the city and fighting terrorists. Audiences sit wide-eyed and enraptured. In his "tough love" times Giuliani has faced down the wishy-washy liberals at The New York Times, the welfare recipients, criminals and a profligate and unaccountable City Council, and made New York City great again. The city's Democrat voters never really liked him but they voted for him. His message to Americans is. You may not want me round at your house for dinner, but you need me in the White House keeping the country safe.