Politics & Policy

Can Giuliani Win the Southern GOP?

They love him in South Carolina, but…

Charleston, S.C. — Rudy Giuliani could not have picked a better time to come to South Carolina. As the former New York mayor walked into Hibernian Hall here in Charleston Wednesday night, the foiled London terror plot, still unfolding, was on everyone’s mind. That, in turn, reminded everyone of September 11. And that reminded them of…Rudy Giuliani.

And there he was. Giuliani had come to Charleston, and, earlier in the day, to Greenville, to raise money for Republican candidates facing voters this November. But one doesn’t have to be in South Carolina long to realize that the 2008 Republican presidential race is in full force here. John McCain was in Columbia yesterday, in Myrtle Beach today; Mitt Romney is here every other day or so, it seems, and the other candidates show up with increasing regularity. This was Giuliani’s first trip to South Carolina in that heated political context, and his first order of business was to explain that his visit had nothing to do with 2008.

“My objective is to do everything I can in 2006 to elect Republican candidates,” Giuliani told reporters. “A lot of people are looking forward to 2008, but I’m looking to 2006 right now. The country has to be governed between 2006 and 2008, and all Republicans should be focused on making sure we do as well as we can this year.”

There’s no doubt Giuliani is doing a lot to support GOP candidates all around the country. But that’s what everybody is doing at this stage of the game; the (undeclared) presidential candidate comes to the state to help local candidates, and in the process gets to know the major politicos and money people who are, it happens, trying to decide who they will support in 2008. So yes, Giuliani’s visit was about 2006, but it was most certainly about 2008, too.

And coming at this particular moment allowed the Giuliani of 9/11 to play to his strengths. When he met reporters at the Mills House hotel shortly before the fundraiser, the first question — and the second, and the third, and the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth — was about terrorism and national security. What did he think about accusations that the White House was playing politics with the London terror arrests? How safe are our ports? What will he do on the fifth anniversary of 9/11? Why hasn’t Osama bin Laden been caught? Has he seen World Trade Center? (He has, by the way, and found it “difficult to watch” but a “very fine movie.”)

All the questions allowed Giuliani to speak, with real authority, on the issue of terrorism. He used the opportunity not to talk himself up but to praise George W. Bush — whatever his problems, the president has very high positive ratings among South Carolina Republicans. After the news conference, when Giuliani went next door to Hibernian Hall to greet 200 GOP contributors gathered for the fundraiser, he explained at some length why Republicans have to stay behind Bush. His reason came down to this: Republicans support the war on terror and Democrats don’t. “It is really important that the war be carried on in the way President Bush envisioned it,” Giuliani told the crowd.

He changed our policy from essentially being on defense against terrorism to being on offense. It was, I think, something that will gain him a great place in history for having done that. But I think even more important than that, and the thing that has been more difficult to do, hasn’t been to make that change in policy, but to stick to it. It has proven at times to be difficult. Things like this are always difficult, and you need a strong leader to do it. That’s why it’s so important that he continue to have the support that he needs in order to carry on that effort against terrorism. And the simple fact is, by and large, Republicans support it. And by and large, as the Democratic primary in Connecticut proved, Democrats don’t. Democrats who think the way we do get voted out of office, or at least they get voted out of office by their party. So this is a legitimate political issue. We should not be intimidated by people saying we are playing politics.

Given that, Giuliani said, “Republicans shouldn’t run away from President Bush. It makes no sense at all. Republicans should embrace him.”

That’s the kind of thing Republican crowds in South Carolina love to hear. They’re also happy with what Giuliani has to say about a number of other key issues. On Iraq, Giuliani told the group, “I always believed, during the 2004 election, that John Kerry really wanted to pull out of Iraq, and he just didn’t say it. And I think a lot of the Democratic party is in that mindset, that we have to pull out of Iraq. And I think that would be a terrible mistake, to cut and run.” On the economy, Giuliani gave as whole-hearted an endorsement of tax cuts and supply-side economics as you’ll find this side of Jack Kemp. On education, he talked about vouchers and charter schools. And no one in America has more credibility to talk about fighting crime.

But there were two issues Giuliani didn’t bring up in South Carolina. His positions on abortion and gay rights — pro-choice, pro-civil unions — are famously at odds with those of social conservatives who make up a large part of the South Carolina GOP primary electorate. The question for Giuliani is how much that will matter.

“There are certain prerequisites that a candidate has to have to get to the point of even being seriously considered in South Carolina,” says Oran Smith, head of the Palmetto Family Council, an organization affiliated with James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. “Gay rights, abortion, guns [Giuliani is pro-gun control] — any one of them would be a disqualifier, but the three of them together are absolutely insurmountable.”

There’s no doubt that some South Carolina voters agree wholeheartedly. But how many? There are no solid numbers, but Smith — along with several other political observers — believes the group is pretty big. “If you were to say, What percentage of South Carolina voters are value voters, that would probably be as high as 70 percent,” Smith says. “But as far as those who see some of these issues as disqualifiers, I think that number would be in the 40 to 50 percent range. I don’t think you can say that the number of people who are motivated even partially by social issues falls below 40 percent.”

That’s certainly true in some parts of South Carolina, but one might expect people in Charleston, traditionally a bit less conservative than the rest of the state, to disagree. But maybe not. Cyndi Mosteller, chairman of the Charleston County Republicans, says, “The good thing about Rudy Giuliani is you know exactly where he stands, but it’s not in sync with where a lot of Republican activists are on the social issues, the issue of right to life, and issues of marriage.”

But here’s the puzzling thing. If there are so many social conservatives in South Carolina, and if they are deeply concerned about Giuliani’s position on the social issues, one might expect them to bring those issues up when Giuliani visits. But they don’t. Giuliani spent a full day talking to Republicans around the state on Wednesday, and he faced exactly one question about it. And that question was from…me. When he met reporters at the Mills House — after all those questions on terrorism and national security — I asked Giuliani what he told South Carolina Republicans who asked about his positions on abortion and gay rights.

“Nobody brought it up,” Giuliani said with a laugh. “We went to a pretty extensive one-hour roundtable discussion with a group of Republicans. I would say the same things I say in New York if those issues come up. They haven’t come up. I’d also say that right now they’re not the main issues.”

That evening, Giuliani went on to attend another roundtable with Republican donors, and nobody brought up the social issues there, either. And after his speech at Hibernian Hall, he took a number of questions from the audience, and nobody said a word about abortion or gay marriage. If South Carolinians are deeply concerned about the issues, they’re not confronting Giuliani with their worries.

The reason, some people close to Giuliani believe, is that September 11 created a new dynamic in Republican politics. “I don’t think social issues are at the forefront of people’s minds when they’re thinking about who they want to be their next president,” says a source in the Giuliani circle. “People are concerned about really basic, big issues — issues of war and peace, literally. The days of the tail wagging the dog on social issues are over. It’s not that people don’t care about them, it’s just that they have a new take on prioritizing.”

Maybe so. Certainly Giuliani wouldn’t enjoy the rock-star reception he gets in the South without the 9/11 aura. But there may be a simpler reason for the silence of the southerners. And that reason is, at this early stage in the presidential race, it’s just not yet time to bring the troublesome issues up. “There a sense of gentility, and people are not going to make someone feel uncomfortable or say something that will embarrass,” says Oran Smith. “When we start to get down to what we believe, that’s when the gloves come off and the gentility goes away.”

So which is it? Are social issues less important, or will they come on strong in due time? No one will know the answer to that question for a while, but there are also more practical aspects that can determine the success of a presidential campaign. And in South Carolina, even at this very early point in the race, Giuliani appears to be substantially behind other Republican candidates.

There’s no doubt Giuliani’s visit to Charleston looked presidential. There was a lot of security, a lot of men in suits with earpieces. His entourage included staffers from Solutions America, Giuliani’s political action committee, and from Giuliani’s company, Giuliani Partners. (The group included Chris Henick, the former top aide to Karl Rove, who joined the firm in 2003.) But that’s a traveling group. In terms of an organization on the ground in South Carolina, Giuliani doesn’t really have one.

Compare that to his fellow front-running rival, Sen. John McCain. The news in South Carolina political circles in the last few weeks has been the number of prominent state politicos who have signed up with McCain. There’s the attorney general, Henry McMaster, who was once thought to be closer to Giuliani than McCain. The two were U.S. attorneys together years ago, and Giuliani describes McMaster as a good friend, but on Wednesday McMaster told the South Carolina newspaper The State that, “I think Rudy would be a superb candidate, but my choice right now is for Sen. John McCain.”

McCain has also locked up the former attorney general, Charlie Condon, as well as Bob McAlister, the former top aide to legendary governor Carroll Campbell. And of course, there’s the current governor, Mark Sanford, who backed McCain in 2000 but can’t jump on the bandwagon again until he wins re-election in November. (Sanford’s wife Jenny came to the Giuliani fundraiser, explaining her husband couldn’t make it.) And, finally, there’s Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is so close to McCain that during a recent visit to Columbia, McCain absentmindedly referred to Graham as “Cindy” — the name of McCain’s wife.

All in all, it’s a pretty strong lineup, all behind McCain. But Giuliani argues it won’t matter in the long run. Asked when he needs to get a team together, he said, “After the 2006 election. I really don’t think you should get in the way of the 2006 election. There’s plenty of time.” Perhaps that’s true. But Giuliani is already gambling that he can persuade South Carolinians to accept his positions on some of the most contentious issues in politics. Even if that is possible, the job could take some time — perhaps more than Giuliani has given himself.

Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.

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