Candidates have been hesitantly dipping their toes in the waters of the 2008 election, but as we move further along in the year some of the heavy hitters are beginning to form their exploratory committees and starting to raise money. Last week it was Hillary Clinton for the Democrats, and this week she's balanced out by another New Yorker, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani for the Republicans.
Giuliani comes into the race with a commanding lead in the early polls. Among Republican contenders he stands at 34%, compared to 22% for John McCain who declared way back last fall, and a surprising 15% for Newt Gingrich. Giuliani is also polling better against likely Democrat nominees than any other Republican. He's the only Republican who regularly polls higher than Hillary Clinton, though it's neck and neck. In candidate pairings no other Republican beats Clinton in any of the major polls. He also has lower negative ratings than any other declared candidate from either party. With a negative rating of only 37% he blows away all of the Democrats and even beats John McCain's 39%.
Giuliani brings a chimerical record to the campaign, because he combines very strong conservative positions on some issues with very liberal positions on other issues. He's likely to offend several of the core single-issue voting blocks in the GOP, based on a record which is very clear and spin proof. Given his record on the issues, what's remarkable is that Giuliani has a negative rating of only 17% among Republicans in the latest CNN poll, suggesting that a lot of party loyalists are willing to overlook some positions they don't agree with because of Giuliani's reputation for competence and integrity. Another plus is that he appeals to independent voters more than most other Republicans – a key advantage in an election where more voters than ever before are disenchanted with both political parties.
For Republican voters, Giuliani's scores big on issues like fighting crime, terrorism, taxation, fiscal responsibility, welfare reform and education. He was very successful as a prosecuting attorney and as Mayor he cut murders in New York City by more than 2/3, cleaning up the streets in a creative bottom-up program of fighting crime at every level. His record on terrorism is pretty well established. He was the voice of stability and competence during the 9/11 crisis, and has since become a professional security consultant. He's also been outspoken about his belief in a very firm foreign policy when dealing with terrorism. As Mayor he also managed to cut overall taxes by almost 20%, while cutting the city workforce and turning a multi-billion dollar deficit into a surplus. His record on welfare reform is less familiar, but he substantially reduced the rolls while he was Mayor, and supports programs for reintegrating welfare recipients into the workforce. He also has a very appealing record on education, with a history of substantially improving a declining public school system. He was the first Mayor to promote Charter Schools as an education alternative, and has expressed limited support for other forms of school choice.
Despite an overall positive record, certain groups of Republican voters will be less happy with his stand on some specific issues. Although Giuliani was raised as a Catholic and even considered entering the priesthood, over time he developed a moderately pro-choice position on abortion. He's personally opposed to abortion, but believes that abortion is the woman's choice. He's certainly not a zealot on the issue, but single issue pro-life voters are not going to be comfortable with him. His record on gun rights is also weak. While he supports the right to keep and bear arms in general, he also believes in letting local and state restrictions stand and in the federal restriction of some types of firearms.
He's not strictly anti-gun, but he's only going to get an endorsement from the NRA if he makes it to the general election, and then because his Democrat opponent will likely be much worse. A lot of pro-gun Republicans (is there any other kind?) are going to find themselves grumbling but voting for him anyway. His position on gay marriage is similarly moderate. While he doesn't support gay marriage, he was outspoken in support of partnership rights for city employees and domestic partnerships in general. It's the same position shared by a lot of moderate Republicans, but it's going to lose him more support from the religious right. Then there's his personal history. He's multiple-divorced, and his second wife accused him of “notorious adultery” when they divorced. Not uncommon in America these days, but it's bound to be the basis of some mudslinging, as will the fact that his first wife was his second cousin.
Giuliani's biggest plus may be that he's seen as a political outsider. He's about as far as you can get from being a Bush crony, and because his record is in local government he isn't tainted by any of the national repugnance for our legislators. He's also refreshingly plainspoken. He actually says what he believes and admits it when he's not sure. It's a nice change from the kind of meaningless babble about “lockboxes” and “compassionate conservatism” we've been deluged with in the last two elections. The biggest challenge for Giuliani is maintaining the early lead he's come into the campaign with, and putting together enough of a coalition from the uneasy Republican base to win the primary. Once he gets to the general election, his charm, honesty and debating skills will make him tough for anyone to beat.