A year before Election Day, Americans may be heading toward the most unorthodox US presidential race in a generation.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York appears well positioned to become the first woman nominee of a major party. But it is Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, who would represent the greater departure for his party, if he were to win the Republican nomination.
Mr. Giuliani's liberal positions on social issues – foremost, abortion and gay rights – put him at odds with the large social conservative wing of the Republican Party. If Giuliani can make it through the primaries, he would be the first Republican nominee to hold such views since President Reagan made opposition to abortion a central feature of Republican doctrine.
Senator Clinton, in contrast, represents mainstream Democratic thought in her policy positions, even if the liberal wing of her party is skeptical of her centrist take on foreign policy – most recent, her vote for a resolution on Iran that opponents say could pave the way for war.
So how is it that Giuliani has defied expectations and remained at the top of national polls of Republican voters this long? Two factors, analysts say.
"The first is 9/11 and number 2 is Hillary Clinton," says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
For both parties, toughness has become an essential quality both in fighting wars and in doing battle with the opposition party. And in a campaign where the operating assumption is that Clinton will win the Democratic nomination, Republicans so far are willing to forgive Giuliani his social views if they think he can beat her, says Mr. Pitney.
In addition, religious conservative leaders are hopeful that the bulk of GOP primary voters are ill-informed about his social views, and that as they tune in to the race, they will conclude that he is too liberal. For the antiabortion movement, the prospect of pitting two pro-abortion rights candidates against each other in the general election is almost unthinkable. The next presidency could represent the culmination of a generation-long battle to overturn the right to abortion, enshrined in the 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade.
Court-watchers predict two or more justices will leave the court during the next presidential term, creating the potential for an anti-Roe majority. Giuliani has promised to nominate "strict constructionist" justices in the mold of the current court's four most conservative jurists, but social conservative leaders are not assuaged. They are also concerned that anti-abortion Democrats who have been voting Republican in recent elections will "come home" to the Democratic Party, if the abortion issue is taken off the table.
The good news for social conservatives is that Giuliani's nomination is by no means certain. While Clinton leads her next strongest competitor, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, by an average of 22 points in national polls, Giuliani leads his field by 14 points. The larger challenge for Giuliani may well be getting through the early-primary states. He is trailing in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and South Carolina. His strategists say he is banking on winning the nomination in the later-voting delegate-rich states, such as Florida, New York, and California. But if he starts primary season with a string of losses, he could lose that aura of potential winner and see the nomination slip through his fingers.
The candidate who is best-positioned to catch up to Giuliani is Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor is winning or competitive in the early states, and if he sweeps there, he could ride that momentum through "superduper Tuesday" – the Feb. 5 primaries, when 23 states vote. Another outside possibility is that a variety of GOP candidates could each take an early primary or caucus, then split the Feb. 5 states, leaving the nomination up for grabs all the way to the Republican convention in early September.
But there are signs that a Giuliani nomination is not as far-fetched as the pundits predicted last January. A Pew Research Center poll released last week finds a "sharp decline" in the proportion of voters citing social issues – gay marriage, abortion, and stem-cell research – as "very important." In October 2004, 32 percent of voters said gay marriage would be very important to their vote; that figure is now 22 percent. On abortion, 39 percent of voters say the issue will be very important to their vote, down from 47 percent three years ago.
On the Democratic side, polls show Clinton continues to dominate the nomination race, even after she stumbled in last week's debate. An ABC/Washington Post poll taken after the debate shows her with a 23-point lead over Obama and a 37-point lead over former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. If any nominating contest could give her trouble, it is the first, Iowa, which holds caucuses Jan. 3. There, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards are all within 10 points of one another. If she loses big in Iowa, that could scramble the field.
But in the world of political futures trading, Clinton sits comfortably atop her field. Intrade has her at 71 percent (while, in contrast, Giuliani is at 41 percent).
And in the general election, despite a mood that weighs heavily against the Republican Party, a Clinton-Giuliani race shows the New York senator up by an average of just 3 points – too close to call.