Just a month ago, Rudy Giuliani was riding high in polls of Republican voters for their party's 2008 presidential nomination. The former mayor of New York enjoyed near universal name recognition and a sterling reputation for leadership and decisiveness in the aftermath of 9/11.
And his liberal stands on divisive issues such as abortion? Maybe a new day had dawned, in which enough social conservative voters would put security concerns ahead of the culture wars to nominate a liberal Republican, some party activists had suggested. Others touted Mr. Giuliani's strength in the GOP field as a sign that theirs was a "big tent" party.
Now, the tide seems to be shifting. Giuliani's poll numbers have flattened noticeably in the past few weeks, following the first GOP debate early this month and the ensuing news coverage over his conflicted answer on abortion rights.
In the latest Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll, Giuliani leads Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona by just one point, 25 percent to 24 percent, down from a seven-point lead at the end of April. In the Gallup poll, Giuliani's lead over Senator McCain has shrunk from 14 points in early May to six points in mid-May.
"He's been on the ropes the last couple of weeks," says Amy Walter, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, who cites not just his liberal stand on abortion, but also his inability to explain himself clearly. "Giuliani's strongest asset is supposed to be this sense that … he projects strength and courage of conviction. Yet on the first question about a contentious issue, he seemed to be all over the place."
Giuliani's performance in debate
In the second GOP debate, held Tuesday night, Giuliani scored points for his fiery, assertive exchange with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas over the causes of 9/11. And Giuliani explained his abortion position with greater clarity: "I ultimately do believe in a woman's right of choice," he said, then followed with his oft-stated view that "I think there are ways in which we can reduce abortions."
Whether Giuliani can halt his slide and remain a top competitor for the nomination may depend on news events going forward, analysts say. Another terror attack on US soil, or other developments that keep the national conversation focused on security, could work to Giuliani's benefit. But a return in focus to the social issues – not just abortion, but also gay rights, end of life issues, and gun control - that have been bedrock voting issues for base Republican voters could finish Giuliani.
This week, the passing of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a pioneer in the politicization of religious conservatives, has also brought renewed attention to the issues he had highlighted for decades. But the war in Iraq, the continuing terrorist threat, healthcare, and education remain at the top of voter concerns.
Last year, in fact, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that the biggest social issues, abortion and gay marriage, ranked at the bottom of a list of 19 issues that voters judged important. But within the core of the Republican electorate, these two issues are game changers. And following the Supreme Court's ruling last month upholding a federal ban on a type of abortion procedure, the ingredients are now in place for the next round in the abortion-rights battle.
Abortion-rights activists are expected to mount a campaign, going into the 2008 presidential race, pointing out that the next president may well be in a position to nominate one or more Supreme Court justices – and that if a Republican is elected, that could be the end of the nationwide right to abortion enshrined in Roe v. Wade. That argument has been made in past elections, but since the April ruling upholding the ban on so-called "partial-birth abortions," the message may carry more urgency.
High stakes in abortion debate
"The stakes will be very high when the campaign moves into full swing, because abortion will probably be on the agenda very soon for the Supreme Court," says independent pollster John Zogby. "The recent Supreme Court ruling was pretty much the kick in the pants that the [pro-abortion rights] side needed. That's precisely the history of the abortion issue: Whichever side faces a cataclysmic event gets mobilized. Meanwhile, the prolife side is so well organized."
That may not be good news for Giuliani, who, in the first debate, appeared not to feel strongly either way when asked about the possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade. Until now, Giuliani has been saved, in part, by the perceived weaknesses of the other top-tier Republican candidates, McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
McCain is not a beloved figure among social conservatives, in part because of his support for limits on campaign spending and also because of highly critical comments he made about Mr. Falwell and other religious conservative leaders in the 2000 election. Mr. Romney is also suspect, because of his recent conversion to conservative positions on social issues.
Republican voters' lack of enthusiasm for their candidates, compared with Democrats' attitudes about theirs, has kept speculation alive that additional candidates will enter the race. But even if the field stands as is, Giuliani's maverick position on social issues could dog him and distract him from the areas he'd rather talk about right up until the first caucuses and primaries.