WASHINGTON — In polls, the top two contenders for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination have long been Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
But pundits have tended to discount Mr. Giuliani's chances, given his liberal stands on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. Now, a combination of factors is forcing a new look at both Senator McCain's vulnerabilities, particularly over his steadfast support for an unpopular Iraq war, and Giuliani's potential to overcome weaknesses.
For the first time since October 1999, McCain's favorability rating among American voters has dropped below 50 percent. A Gallup poll taken last month showed him at 48 percent, down 6 points from November, and down from a high of 67 percent in February 2000. Giuliani, in contrast, has held above 60 percent favorability in Gallup polls, most recently at 62 percent. Now that Giuliani has signaled a serious intention to run, stating on Monday "I'm in this to win" as he filed papers with the Federal Election Commission, the comparisons grow in importance.
For Giuliani, winning over enough of the conservative Republican base to secure the nomination has long been seen as a potentially insurmountable task. But now, analysts say, it's possible that Republican-leaning independents could make the difference in the early GOP primaries.
"I tend to think if Giuliani catches fire, he could win" even the South Carolina primary, says Dick Bennett, a nonpartisan pollster based in New Hampshire, who has been polling in early nominating states. The key is that South Carolina has an open primary, meaning that independents can vote.
In an interview with Fox News on Monday, Giuliani stood by his support for abortion and gay rights, but not gay marriage. He said he would nominate Supreme Court justices similar to those President Bush selected, meaning Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
For Giuliani, the appeal to a broad swath of Republican primary voters would be centered on the leadership aura he gained from his post-9/11 performance as mayor of New York.
In a head-to-head matchup against McCain in a Gallup poll of Republicans and Republican "leaners" taken Jan. 25-28, Giuliani beat the Arizona senator handily in most categories: better public speaker, more likable, better chance of beating the Democratic nominee, would run a more positive campaign, would perform better in debates, would do more to unite the country, would manage the country more effectively, would be better in a crisis, better understands the problems faced by ordinary Americans, and strength of leadership.
McCain beat Giuliani handily in only three categories: more qualified to be president, higher ethical standards, and would work better with Congress.
But with 11 months to go before the Iowa caucuses, the first nominating contest, analysts caution against reading too much into polls. Most voters have not given much thought to the choices. And many are unaware of the facts. Gallup found in early January that 16 percent of Republican primary voters believe Giuliani is "pro-life;" 64 percent are unsure.
Still, the early polling is crucial to candidates' ability to attract funding, top staff, and media attention. Now that Giuliani has declared he's in, he will face a higher level of scrutiny than in the past. He is also just now beginning to put together the infrastructure of his campaign, something McCain has been working on for months and years.
Despite Giuliani's slow start, he now regularly beats McCain in head-to-head matchups. Gallup in early January had Giuliani beating McCain 50 to 42 among Republican primary voters.
The problem for McCain is that he has lost some of his luster as the "maverick" who nearly felled the party favorite for the GOP nomination eight years ago, then-Texas Gov. George Bush. That is hurting him in particular among independents, says Mr. Bennett. The problem is Iraq.
"They view McCain and Bush in the Iraq situation together," he says. In New Hampshire, "there's no excitement for him [McCain]... And I hear from people who are with McCain, 'I wonder if I made a mistake.' "
Giuliani holds a similar position on Iraq, supporting Bush's decision to send additional US troops there, but as an outside-the-Beltway figure, he is not lashed to the future of the war the way McCain is.
Regardless of who wins the GOP nomination, Iraq could be central to his chances in the general election.
"What happens in Iraq will determine whether Republicans have a very steep uphill fight or a fighting chance," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Even though both McCain and Giuliani have roughly the same position, McCain's is so much better known and integrated into his persona than is Giuliani's. I think that's what's taken some of the air out of his balloon."
For McCain, too, conservative skepticism toward him over his support for campaign-finance reform and lack of reliability on tax cuts has never disappeared. McCain is also still working to address longstanding animosity from some Evangelicals. So it may be a combination of factors hurting McCain, analysts say.
"Is it that Republicans are saying to themselves, 'McCain is too close to this unpopular president and this unpopular war'?" says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Or are they saying, 'I never liked McCain, I can't swallow him, he has too many problems, like age and temper, and I've always liked Giuliani'? I think it's a bit of everything."
"It's very revealing – the intensity of anti-McCain sentiment out there among Republicans," Mr. Sabato adds. "I encounter it whenever I give a talk."