Anthony Carbonetti has heard the conventional wisdom a million times. Republican primary voters may say they like Rudy Giuliani now, that wisdom goes, but once they learn his positions on abortion, gay marriage, and guns, they’ll abandon the former New York mayor in a heartbeat. Carbonetti, Giuliani’s long-time right-hand man — he was the mayor’s chief of staff from 1999 to 2001 — doesn’t buy it.
”Why do you think they don’t know?” he asks, referring to those conservative voters for whom abortion, or marriage, or guns are overwhelmingly important issues. “I’m of the impression that people do know. If you’re a single-issue voter — guns, gays, abortion, the environment — don’t you know where every single candidate stands on your issue?”
Carbonetti may be right, especially about those Americans — estimated at anywhere from 9 to 13 percent of the electorate — who are single-issue voters on abortion. (The large majority of them are on the pro-life side.) They’re passionate and well-informed; it seems unlikely that they wouldn’t have a clue about a man as well-known as Giuliani. Perhaps the polls that consistently show Giuliani at the head of the Republican presidential pack have already taken into account his problems on those issues.
Certainly those polls have given Giuliani an impressive ride. In February and March, he appeared to be running away from the field in the Republican presidential race. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken in late February, 44 percent of Republicans surveyed said they would vote for Giuliani, giving him a whopping 23-point lead over former frontrunner Sen. John McCain and an otherworldly 40-point lead over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The polls seemed to suggest that the fundamental dynamics of the race had changed. McCain, once the clear leader, had lost his mojo, and Romney, despite enormous effort, was mired in single digits. Giuliani, meanwhile, had taken on that sense of inevitability that helps front-runners build big leads.
But then something happened. By mid-April, a new Post poll showed Giuliani falling to 33 percent, his 23-point lead over McCain shrunk to 12 percent. Romney was still far back, with nine percent support. (Gallup polls taken at the same time reached basically the same results.) Giuliani was still ahead, but with what appeared to be a different kind of lead from a few weeks earlier.
What had happened, of course, was the emergence of the Fred Thompson factor. Speculation that the former senator might join the race excited a lot of conservative Republicans who were unhappy with the Giuliani/McCain/Romney field. People in Giuliani’s campaign, plus a lot of Republican political types in and out of other campaigns, believe Thompson is benefiting from not being officially in the race and not being under the scrutiny that declared candidates face. If he gets in, of course, that will change. In any event, Thompson is a presence in the GOP contest, and the buzz over his possible candidacy probably contributed to Giuliani’s slip in the polls.
I asked Carbonetti if there were another factor involved as well: a recent Giuliani gaffe over the issue of federal funding for abortions.
In an April 4 interview, a reporter for CNN, Dana Bash, played for Giuliani a statement he made in 1989. “There must be public funding for abortions for poor women.,” Giuliani said back then. “We cannot deny any woman the right to make her own decision about abortion because she lacks resources.” Bash asked if that would be Giuliani’s position were he to be elected president.
“Probably,” Giuliani replied. “I mean, I have to reexamine all of those issues…but ultimately it is a constitutional right, and therefore if it is a constitutional right ultimately, even if you do it on a state-by-state basis, you have to make sure that people are protected.”
“So you support taxpayer money or public funding for abortions in some cases?” Bash asked.
“If it would deprive someone of a constitutional right, yes,” Giuliani said.
It was a baffling statement for several reasons. One, Giuliani has said he supports the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding of abortion. Two, it didn’t make sense: Is the government obligated to provide funds for the poor to exercise other constitutional rights, like the right to bear arms? And three, it was politically tone-deaf. Giuliani has been trying to allay the concerns of pro-life voters by saying that he personally opposes abortion and would appoint strict constructionist judges to the federal courts. Why set himself back by saying something like that?
“Sometimes he overanalyzes things,” says Carbonetti, explaining that the Hyde Amendment contains little-known provisions for some federally funded abortions, and Giuliani, knowing that, was being extra-careful to take those into account. “If a reporter says, would you ban all federal funding for abortions, in the back of his mind, he knows that the Hyde Amendment does allow for rape, incest, and life-of-the-mother abortions,” Carbonetti says. “Most people don’t realize that the Hyde Amendment does those things. They think it’s a ban on all funding.”
In Carbonetti’s telling, it appears Giuliani paid too much attention to details and not enough to how his words would sound. Whatever the case, the incident suggests that Giuliani has not yet found a comfortable way to communicate with strongly pro-life Republican voters. “He’s got to learn that the key thing about abortion,” says GOP pollster David Winston, who is not yet affiliated with any campaign, “is, if he’s going to have that position, he has to make people think, OK, he may be pro-choice, but he’s not going to push it. Making a statement like that, in South Carolina of all places, what was the point of that?”
Giuliani made another, smaller, problem for himself a couple of weeks later with his response to the Supreme Court’s decision upholding Congress’ ban on partial-birth abortion. While McCain waxed eloquent in support of the decision — “a victory for those who cherish the sanctity of life and integrity of the judiciary” — and Romney said it “reaffirmed the value of life in America,” Giuliani issued a terse statement that said, in full: “The Supreme Court reached the correct conclusion in upholding the congressional ban on partial birth abortion. I agree with it.”
Couldn’t he have said a little more, just for politics’ sake? The brevity of his response left some political types in key primary states wondering if he really meant what he said. “He didn’t go on about it because he doesn’t believe it,” says one well-connected South Carolinian. “People can sense that.”
David Winston says Giuliani’s strengths — his record on crime, welfare, and taxes in New York City, plus his performance on 9/11 — are such that they attract voters who might otherwise reject him out of hand. Those voters are willing to put aside some of their differences with Giuliani on social issues, but only if he reassures them that he won’t go too far. “You have people who are overcoming positions that they feel pretty strongly about, because they think he’s so good on other things,” says Winston. “But if they ever become dissatisfied, they’ll leave him more quickly.”
That’s the danger Giuliani faces. There are millions of Republican voters who recognize his strengths and are willing to meet him halfway, or at least part of the way, on the social issues. But Giuliani has to make a genuine effort to reassure them he’s the right choice. If he does, he can win. If he doesn’t, he’ll likely lose — no matter how good a president he might be.