Politics & Policy

McCain’s Rudy Slippers

If the Arizona Republican wants the nomination, he needs to have Rudy as an opponent.

Someone in the McCain high command should have figured out by now that they ought to be doing everything in their power to get and keep Rudy Giuliani in the race for the 2008 GOP nomination. For one, this would significantly reduce the chances of Rudy running as an Independent in the general election, which would be devastating to McCain (assuming he gets the nomination). Also, and just as importantly, Rudy would make a useful foil in McCain’s attempt to reposition himself as the “consensus conservative” and to re-ingratiate himself with social and moral conservatives.

If Rudy’s high command, on the other hand, understood anything about the GOP nomination process, they would be working to get Giuliani the Reform Party nomination. This is no denigration of Rudy or his political skills; rather, despite his tremendous popularity, 2008 is probably not going to be the year in which the GOP nominates a pro-abortion (even worse, pro-partial-birth abortion), pro-gay-marriage divorcee who openly flaunted his affair during his marriage. And the divergence between Rudy and the voters who control the GOP nominating process goes far beyond just these differences.

At the moment, McCain is in a strong position: He is assembling a team of skilled veterans, lining up support state by state, and recalibrating his Washington activities to capitalize on the new realities of Democrat control of Congress. But if you could get one of his top advisers drunk and talking, he would admit to being petrified that the conservative base of the party will coalesce around a single conservative candidate as an alternative to McCain.

George Allen’s defeat was an early and tremendously beneficial Christmas present to McCain. Allen was well on the way to positioning himself as the “consensus conservative,” and his demise has left a vacuum. There are others who would like to fill that void — Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, and Sam Brownback to name a few — but it is unclear if any of them can succeed. The only way for McCain to make sure they don’t is to fill the vacuum himself.

The pre-2000 John McCain would have had no problem with this. But in the 2000 primaries, McCain ran as a moderate, snubbing the very social and moral conservatives he needs in 2008. Since then, he has done further and serious damage to his conservative credentials.

This is why having Rudy as a Republican opponent would be so helpful to McCain. If you put the two side by side and go issue by issue, McCain easily seems like the “consensus conservative” in the race — especially to the social and moral conservatives. Rudy might still win some primaries, just as McCain did in 2000; but McCain will still end up the “consensus conservative,” just as Bush did in 2000.

Isn’t there another opponent who would make a less risky foil for McCain than Giuliani? The only other moderate-to-liberal candidate in the race is New York Governor George Pataki, and he just won’t do. Pataki has nowhere near enough support to provide McCain with any sort of leverage. Besides, Rudy currently garners votes that McCain can pick up if he were to push Giuliani to the left and were himself to move to the right. Rudy is the only fit for this strategy, and a perfect one at that.

For this to work, McCain needs to engage Giuliani aggressively, pointing out the differences between the two. If some other candidate were to establish himself as the conservative alternative to Giuliani, McCain would be squeezed on both his left and right flanks and would be left with a disintegrating base. It is a challenge that Mitt Romney could ably mount, as a candidate who is himself looking to confirm his conservative credentials. McCain can preclude such a challenge by setting himself up in clear contrast to Giuliani.

If Rudy opted out of the GOP election and ran as an Independent, that would not only deny McCain a great foil in the primaries but would also set up a very difficult general election for him. If the key rationale for the strength of McCain’s candidacy in the general election is his appeal to independents and more moderate and conservative Democrats, having Rudy Giuliani on the ballot as an Independent would severely undermine McCain’s chances.

In that scenario, McCain would have to try to move Rudy left, so that Rudy would take more from the Democratic candidate’s base than from McCain’s. The Democratic nominee would try to move Rudy right, with the end result most likely being a Rudy stuck square in the middle. This bodes well only for Giuliani.

If Rudy is going to run for president, then McCain wants him to run as a Republican. As for Rudy, he should fire anyone who tells him he should enter the GOP primaries. They either don’t understand the GOP nomination process or are shilling for McCain.

 – Tony Fabrizio served as chief pollster and strategist for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign and is a principal of GOP polling firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin and Associates.

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