Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

He backs gun control, gay rights and abortion. Why do Republicans rate Rudy Giuliani?

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We have witnessed the canonisation of Saint Albert Gore. We have had fresh confirmation of the transcendence among Democrats of the rather less saintly Hillary Clinton. And we watched as debutant debater Fred Thompson, former senator for Tennessee and most recently of TV Law and Order fame, correctly named Stephen Harper as the Prime Minister of Canada in the latest Republican candidates' forum.

Fred the fumbler? Fred the fainéant? Not a bit of it. Get such questions right and you've proved you have the foreign policy expertise to be President. But for me, the unsung victor of the political goings-on here last week was none of the above, but Rudy Giuliani.

The Republican debate, in Dearborn, Michigan was a curious affair, notable more for what was not said than for what was. As befitted the venue, a Detroit suburb synonymous with America's floundering car industry, the emphasis was on economic issues. It was no surprise that, as far as I could tell, no one even uttered that ultimate four letter word spelt B-U-S-H. If Republicans are to win in 2008, they must pretend that the previous four or five years never happened. More significantly, we were spared any discussion of the three Gs – guns, gays and God – normally staples of conservative political discourse. The beneficiary, beyond doubt, was the former mayor of New York.

Out of this crowded field you could fashion a perfect Identikit candidate. Take Mitt Romney's polish and managerial skills. Stir in Giuliani's hawkishness on security. Add a large dash of Thompson's lazy southern charm, and top with a dollop of John McCain's straight-talking sincerity, and you've got a winner. The trouble is, each of them lacks a vital ingredient possessed by the others, and in the eyes of that bedrock Republican constituency, the religious right, none of them quite measures up.

By modelling himself on Ronald Reagan, his party's one undisputed modern saint, Thompson gambled he could win its heart. Alas, close inspection of his record on abortion revealed some pro-choice wobbles. Ditto Romney, whose very sleekness (not to mention his Mormon faith and record as former governor of liberal Massachusetts) makes him an object of deep suspicion. On gay rights, abortion and gun control, Romney has moved sharply rightward in the last few years. A belated epiphany, wonder the evangelicals, or blatant opportunism?

McCain, of course, has long been beyond the pale for sections of the right, never forgiven for having described the leaders of the religious right – in those days Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell – as "the outer reaches of American politics" and "agents of intolerance" during his bitter 2000 primary fight with George W Bush. Since then McCain has recanted, at least in part. But by the same canon, the thrice-married Giuliani should be living not in McCain-style purgatory but amid the fires of hell. He has always favoured a woman's right to abortion. He supports gay rights and, as a former big-city prosecutor, was long an advocate of gun control.

Yet Giuliani is clear leader of the Republican field – amazingly, albeit narrowly, even among evangelicals. It is anything but an instinctive embrace; rather, a grudging acknowledgement that Giuliani is the best option if the party is to hang on to the White House in its toughest presidential cycle since Watergate. A couple of other candidates – Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and a Baptist minister, and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback – who don't even accept evolution have impeccable conservative credentials. Right now, however, neither has a serious chance of the nomination, even if Huckabee is closing in on McCain and Romney for third place.

More to the point, how does Giuliani do it? "Don't ask, don't tell" is part of the answer. Thus far at least, a fragile bargain holds. Conservative audiences don't press him too hard on the three Gs, and Giuliani doesn't raise them. If they are raised, he changes the subject – usually to Hillary Clinton. Speak no ill of a fellow Republican was Reagan's old "11th commandment" of politics, and Giuliani does his very best not to. Instead he pours his scorn on the Democratic frontrunner.

It's a clever move. If anything unites the Republican party, it's acute Hillary-phobia. "You may have doubts about me", is Giuliani's message, "but she's far, far worse. And more importantly, I can win."

His campaign touts him as a "50-state general election candidate" who can win not only in the Republican redoubts of the South, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain west, but where it matters most – in Ohio, Florida, even New York. And he might be right. The Democrats may lead by a landslide-sized 49 per cent to 36 per cent, according to a National Public Radio poll this weekend which asks the non-specific question, "Which party are you likely to vote for in a general election?" But in a specific choice between Hillary and Rudy the gap shrinks from 13 to just 3 per cent, a statistical dead heat.

The other part of the Giuliani formula may be summed up as "9/11". With his wolfish smile and Big Apple brusqueness, the former mayor is, shall we say, not the most winsome of candidates. But he has what political image makers call a "strong personal narrative". A former tough-on-crime prosecutor and the mayor who led his city through the trauma of 11 September 2001: if Giuliani can't keep America safe, who can? Not surprisingly, he tends to gloss over Iraq, for fear of the B-word. But when it comes to Iran-bashing, he's your man.

And if the religious right still isn't happy with him, there's not a huge amount they can do about it. Some activists want to run a third-party candidate in the general election, should Giuliani win the nomination. As Richard Viguerie, a conservative advocate, puts it: "For Republicans to turn the party over to someone like [Giuliani] they are telling the American people, 'We have one guiding principle and that is power.'"

But such high-minded spoiling invariably backfires. In 1912 Teddy Roosevelt's break with the Republicans let in the Democrat Woodrow Wilson. More recently, of course, Ralph Nader won just 2 per cent of the vote in 2000, but enough to hand the White House to George W Bush.

But Giuliani has something else going for him. The religious right is not what it was. Its high water mark came in the early 1990s, with Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. Since then it has been sapped by scandals and demoralised by the unpopularity of the most faith-based President of modern times. At the same time, the movement's focus is broadening. Abortion and gay rights have been joined by other greener, even Democratic, issues, from poverty to the environment and preservation of the planet entrusted to them.

This weekend the Republican field will be in Washington to address the "Values Voter Summit" of social conservatives in Washington, the next candidates' cattle call on the winding road to Iowa and New Hampshire. After some hesitation, Giuliani agreed to attend the gathering, which concludes with a straw poll. He won't win – but this time it may not matter.

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