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The GOP’s best hope

James P. Pinkerton
Vail CO, Colorado

Rudy Giuliani went into the most recent Republican presidential debate as the front-runner, and he emerged as the front-runner. And he’s doing it, to coin a phrase, his way.

The spectacle of 10 hopefuls onstage in South Carolina, all yakking away, might be wearying, even to the GOP faithful, but fairness requires that everyone have a shot.

Besides, some new stars will emerge. For example, not only did former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have the funniest line of the night ” “We’ve had a Congress that’s spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop” ” but it was also maybe the truest line. True about the wastrel ways of Capitol Hill, and true about the foppish ways of Democratic candidate John Edwards.

Huckabee bids to be what George W. Bush was supposed to be when elected in 2000: a compassionate conservative holding a strong gubernatorial record, determined to bring Christian teaching to the public square on issues ranging from education to abortion.

And while Huckabee stands out for his earnest willingness to wrestle with issues such as public health, the presidential wannabes mostly presented themselves as social-issue conservatives.

For that, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who died Tuesday morning, can claim enormous credit. Since the nomination of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Republican Party has been firmly in the grip of Sunbelt social-issue conservatives.

Even Sen. John McCain, who flirted with ideological deviationism and once directly attacked Falwell as “an agent of intolerance,” has fallen back into the fold. He made a mea culpa pilgrimage to Falwell’s Liberty University last year.

But now comes the exception that probes the Republican rule: Giuliani, who maintains moderate-to-liberal social-issue views.

In 2008, says the former New York City mayor, America must focus on the global war on terror. Over and over again Tuesday, Giuliani shifted pointed questions about domestic issues back to his preferred turf of counterterrorism. Twice he cited the arrests of the “Fort Dix Six” as a reminder that America faces real threats. Dealing with those threats, Giuliani argued, must take precedence over social-issue litmus tests.

Will it work? Will Giuliani be able to win the nomination, thereby undoing three decades of Falwell-esque orthodoxy? Certainly Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, did his best to help ” help Giuliani, that is. Paul, an anti-interventionist libertarian, has for years critiqued American foreign policy. And if he were advancing his arguments at leisurely academic seminars, he might do pretty well, recalling such forgotten (by Americans) incidents as Uncle Sam’s overthrowing the elected government of Iran back in 1953.

But in the sound-bitten world of presidential politics, Paul was demolished by Giuliani’s stern response to the Texan’s blaming Sept. 11 on our foreign policy. As in the wake of Pearl Harbor, nobody here was interested in looking at things from the Japanese viewpoint.

Yet, while Giuliani shows great enthusiasm for carrying on Bush’s war on terror, every other aspect of his candidacy breaks the familiar mold. In a party dominated by Southern Baptists, he is a Northeastern Catholic. He is pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control.

In addition, stylistically, Giuliani is far different from the incumbent president. Whereas Bush as a war leader chose to focus on broad themes, leaving the details for others to handle ” or not ” Giuliani advertises himself as detail-oriented, determined to cut through the clutter to get results.

It’s hard to imagine that a President Giuliani, for instance, would have let Osama bin Laden slip away back in 2001, or let the Iraq war drag out for all these years, with our military so ill-equipped. Giuliani is that rare political combination: moderate ideologically, but not mushy personally. He has the hard edge of an ideologue, but not the rigidity or extremism.

So today, with another debate behind him, Giuliani seems to be the most “nominate-able” of the Republicans. And probably the most electable.

James Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.


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