Since Sept. 11, Giuliani has become `Rudy the Rock'

In little more than week, he has gone from near-pariah to paragon.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's highly public divorce from television personality Donna Hanover and romance with girlfriend Judith Nathan seemed to have cemented the public's image of Giuliani as a querulous, abrasive, embarrassing figure whose departure from Gracie Mansion, the mayor's official residence, could come none too soon.

Now, whether he is striding through the ground-zero wreckage of the twin towers in lower Manhattan or attending the funeral of a fallen Fire Department official, he is given a hero's welcome.

Applause and cheers seem inadequate. Shouts of "four more years" greet him wherever he goes despite the fact that the city's term-limit statute prevents him from running again.

With his resolute yet compassionate handling of the city's response to the trade center attacks, Giuliani has accomplished one of the swiftest, most complete transformations of a politician's image in recent memory.

Praise from the Times

Tributes have come from all quarters. On Monday, in his first television show since the attacks, an emotional David Letterman called the mayor "the personification of courage." CNN dubbed him "Rudy the Rock." Even the editorial page of The New York Times, normally hostile to Giuliani, called him "the mayor of the moment."

On Wednesday, French President Jacques Chirac added to the accolades after Giuliani took him on a tour of the vast rubble mound where the two 110-story towers had stood.

"In the French press, when they mention `mayor of New York,' they say `mayor-hero,' which is a French expression equivalent to `Rudy the Rock,'" Chirac said, addressing a visibly embarrassed mayor. "We really, really admire what has been done here. ... You did that for New Yorkers but also for all the free world, for the dignity of mankind. And we are beside you."

After two hijacked jets crashed into the towers, Giuliani narrowly escaped injury in the collapse of the buildings. Taking shelter in a nearby office building, he then led a band of city officials through the streets to a Greenwich Village fire station, where a temporary command post was set up.

Assurance for the city

Later on that morning, he appeared on local television to reassure nervous New Yorkers that police, fire and rescue officials were doing all they could to maintain order.

"The city was locked down right away," said an admiring Joe Rogacki, 29, a United Parcel Service supervisor, as he watched rescue and salvage efforts at ground zero. "And then he got Wall Street reopened by Monday. He's doing a great job."

At his daily news conferences, Giuliani demonstrates a newfound mastery of the art of being in control without being controlling. He leads his subordinates through the litany of the missing, the dead and the tons of rubble removed.

Gov. George Pataki, a fellow Republican with whom Giuliani has had a strained relationship, often stands behind him, never publicly questioning the mayor's role as the man in charge.

In times of crisis, people "want someone who is going to provide direction, provide information and show compassion," said Lee Miringhoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which will release a poll this week on how New Yorkers rate the mayor's performance. "I think he is doing all those."

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Giuliani's leadership has been his willingness to mourn in public. In announcing the deaths of three top-ranking Fire Department officials and in presiding over the mass promotion of 168 firefighters to replace missing or dead officers, he gave free rein to his grief, at one point taking off his glasses and holding his head in his hands as he wept.

"He linked up with the emotional feelings of everybody else," said George Budenbender, 55, an energy company executive watching the rescue effort. "You don't have the feeling he's reading a canned speech."

Critics have done turnabout

Giuliani's performance has even impressed many former critics and political opponents.

Before the attacks, his support undoubtedly was weakest in New York's black community, which viewed him as insensitive to their outrage over police conduct in several high-profile cases, including the killing of West African immigrant Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man who was slain by police.

Now, even Rev. Al Sharpton, one of the mayor's sharpest critics, said he can find no fault with the mayor's handling of the crisis. Former Mayor David Dinkins, who beat Giuliani in 1989 and then lost to him in 1993, has gone even further, praising him for his efficiency and sensitivity.

That sentiment finds echoes among ordinary black voters.

"I didn't have a high opinion of him before this," said Dorothy Downey, 27, an actress who did not vote for Giuliani. "But this is kind of his forte. He's been very organized, very informative and very in control. He's definitely gone up a few notches in my opinion."

But Rudy the Rock will become Rudy the Rootless in January. The city's mayoral primary, originally set for the day of the attack, will be held Tuesday, with the general election to follow in November. With Giuliani barred from serving more than two consecutive terms, there has been speculation that President Bush may ask him to head an anti-terrorism task force or a city commission to rebuild on the World Trade Center site.

Giuliani has been evasive about the future, saying Wednesday, "Yes, there are things to think about and discuss, but it almost doesn't seem right to talk about it now."

That leaves many New Yorkers hoping that the state legislature or the city council will pass an emergency measure to let him remain mayor for an extra six months or a year, an unlikely prospect; Democrats in City Hall and the legislature have said they oppose the idea.

"After despising him, I really wish he could stay on instead of someone coming in who doesn't know what he's doing," said Tessa Grundon, 39, a Soho artist who disapproved of Giuliani's attempt to cut funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art when it displayed a work he found objectionable. "I hated him, and now I think he's amazing."