For some families, bickering during Thanksgiving dinner is as much a ritual as the turkey and stuffing. Tiny disagreements turn into roaring arguments, and suddenly a cousin bolts from the table to Google figures on the resting heart rate of a 40-year-old to prove he's right. In most families these squabbles eventually die down. People must return to their homes. In the Republican family, though, the Thanksgiving spat that broke out between Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney threatens to last into the New Year.
The quarrel has touched on taxes, crime, immigration, abortion, ethical standards, and health care. The specifics of each candidate's claim and counterclaim are hotly debated, but there is a general pattern to the back and forth. Giuliani's essential charge is that Romney changes positions. Romney's is that Giuliani doesn't tell the truth. In a typical exchange Monday, Giuliani claimed Romney has "had every position that everyone has had," and Romney responded: "Mayor Giuliani has a fact problem, meaning that he makes them up." (The back-and-forth kicked off the GOP debate Wednesday night and got so heated so fast it seemed the two-hour event would be consumed by their bickering alone.)
Romney is unlikely to win this tit-for-tat. Sure, every fight he picks with Giuliani helps him solidify the idea that the GOP contest is really only a two-man race (Huckabee who?), but in every round of this fight Romney is going to come out on the short end. On the merits, he's right: Giuliani bends the facts. Factcheck.org could start a Rudycheck.org subsidiary to accommodate their regular reports on his shadings, exaggerations, and willful distortions. But on the political scorecard, Giuliani's charge about Romney has more political punch than Romney's about Giuliani.
Giuliani's first advantage is that he has video on his side. When Romney wants to make a point about his opponent, he has to hope voters will pay attention long enough to hear why the facts are on his side. Giuliani, on the other hand, benefits from the fact that voters have already been exposed to months of video clips of Romney adamantly holding previous positions that contradict his current ones. If this debate ever gets really ugly, the Giuliani team can put footage of Romney into a TV commercial to educate those voters who haven't seen it.
In this uneven exchange, Giuliani is also hitting on Romney's essential weakness—that he doesn't have core convictions. Romney's punches, even if they land, don't go directly to Giuliani's core vulnerability. Nor do they diminish Giuliani's best attribute—his reputation as a tough leader. As Bill Clinton famously said about George Bush, voters prefer a candidate who is strong and wrong to one who is weak and right.
The strategy Romney is likely to pursue in this protracted struggle is to try to turn Giuliani's fondness for massaging the facts into a broader claim about his penchant for cutting corners, particularly with loyal aides. "Cronyism should be his crippling vulnerability," says an adviser to another GOP campaign about Giuliani. "He has Kerik and a defrocked pedophile priest on his payroll for crying out loud. And he hasn't paid much of a price for it. Normally something like that would finish off his campaign." Romney has hinted at making this case but hasn't gone all the way yet. It would be a very aggressive attack—the moment at the dinner table when someone reaches for the cutlery.