The approachable tough guy.

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April 4 2007 5:10 PM

Rudy in the House

The approachable tough guy.

Rudy Giuliani. Click image to expand.
Rudy Giuliani

When I walked into Rudy Giuliani's first New Hampshire house party, I thought, Somethin's gonna blow. Everyone and everything was jammed into the front hall as if the house had been tipped on its side. The walls were cluttered with paintings and photographs, on a ledge stood two suits of armor, and above, a gargantuan brass chandelier hovered like it had come to take us all away. People were pressed so close to each other that a certain kind of Republican candidate would have condemned the proximity. A choir of at least 30—the hostesses' singing group—provided cathedral-quality hymns for the sacristy-size room.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

It was a perfect setting for Rudy Giuliani—also a presence too big to fit in his party, meaning the GOP. Giuliani is a front-runner at odds with his party's platform on three signature issues: guns, gays, and abortion. He is a self-declared "social moderate" and refers to the social conservatives, at least in private, as "right-wingers," an expression many of them consider an insult. If he gets the nomination, he will have rewritten the rules of Republican politics as they has been practiced for 30 years.

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At this stage in the presidential race, Republicans are usually performing gaudy acts of loyalty to prove their pro-life bona fides. Giuliani ignored abortion while in New Hampshire. He was not asked about and did not mention his positions on social issues at either Monday's house party in Hampton Falls or Tuesday at a speech in New Castle. His aides say they expect at some point he'll have to address all of this, but for now they are trying to elide the problem and suggest that while Giuliani may be unorthodox, he won't be a pro-choice, pro-gay, or anti-gun activist when in office.

If Giuliani wins the nomination, it will be because he has a big shiny thing to distract GOP voters: experience. "I am the candidate in the race who has gotten the most things done," he said to loud applause on the staircase landing in Hampton Falls. This is a boast and a promise. In his stump speech, Giuliani offers a hail of statistics to show that in New York he lowered taxes, cut government spending, and shrank the welfare rolls before the 9/11 attacks. Then he held the city together afterward. "If you can do it in New York you can do it in Washington," he told the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce Tuesday. "The reason I can do it is because I've done it."

New Hampshire is not a hotbed of evangelical voters, so it was not surprising that the handful of voters I talked to after both highly screened events didn't care about abortion and the rest. They were all thirsting for competence, and Rudy makes them happy. (But they're New Hampshire conservatives, so it's a reserved kind of happy.)

Giuliani wisely ignores the more complex picture of his leadership skills, the bloated budget he left his successor, his prickly uncompromising manner, and horrible race relations. But there's reason to be concerned about him even if you buy his tough-talking self-portrayal. The thing about a candidate who gets things done is that he might actually do them. When it comes to opening up a new war with Iran, this might give voters pause. When asked this week about the possibility that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons technology, he offered a sample of what he would tell the country's leaders: "We're not going to let you do it—no way no how. … There's no way you're getting nuclear weapons. You've got to get it straight." If this threat of military action is more than rhetoric, then given how the Iranians are behaving, we could be lacing up for a new war before Giuliani's first State of the Union address.

After the house party, the mayor met with his hosts and a few influential Republicans in the bar at the hotel where he was staying and where a few reporters had also decamped. In a voice loud enough to be overheard on the other side of the room, he outlined his view that the other candidates would divide up the "right-wing," voters, as he called them, leaving him to consolidate the moderates and the economic and military conservatives who aren't fixated on social issues. One participant asked about John McCain: "Has his time passed?" "I think so," responded Giuliani. McCain, he went on, "looked like he was tired and he's cranky."

Giuliani seems decidedly uncranky, and if he can keep it up, this could be his other big plus. A bar is a good setting for him. It's a venue that can accommodate his buoyant or brawler side. Monday night, as he drank Diet Coke, he told stories and cracked jokes. He managed a version of this at the house party as well—when someone knocked over a glass, he quipped: "That's the difference between New Hampshire and New York. In New York they would have thrown it at me." Giuliani wears a better class of suit now that he's in the lucrative private sector, but he still seems like the candidate most likely to be comfortable wearing a muscle-T. When he stopped by the table where I was sitting with a few fellow reporters, the conversation turned to his foot doctor, and he took off his shoe to show his well-worn and stained orthotics. (Most candidates are too pent up to admit they have orthotics.) If you think back to the voter sentiment in 2000 that George Bush was the candidate they'd most like to have a beer with, you can imagine primary voters making Giuliani their preferred drinking buddy. But he may want to keep his shoes on.

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