Many Americans know Rudolph W. Giuliani only from his performance in the smoke and ashes of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York -- a steely image that has propelled him atop the polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Now, some groups at the center of the 9/11 experience are laying aggressive plans to tarnish that image and undermine the central pillar of his candidacy.
Officials from a national firefighters union, along with some relatives of Sept. 11 victims, say they will publicly attack decisions Giuliani made as New York mayor before and after the terrorist strikes.
Among other complaints, they say that Giuliani failed to support modernized radios that might have spared the lives of more firefighters at the World Trade Center, and that he located the city's main emergency command center in the complex, even though it had been targeted by terrorists eight years earlier.
Giuliani aides say the accusations are baseless and driven by politically motivated unions with strong ties to Democrats.
So far, the International Assn. of Fire Fighters, the country's biggest firefighter union, says it will aim its anti-Giuliani effort at its own 280,000 members. But union President Harold A. Schaitberger said the group will also "stand ready" to support a much more public campaign by families of firefighters and workers who died in the World Trade Center.
Some organizers are comparing that potential campaign to advertisements by the group Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth, which used personal testimonials from veterans to accuse 2004 Democratic nominee John F. Kerry of exaggerating his achievements as a Navy lieutenant in the Vietnam War.
Kerry disputed the claims, but many Democrats believed the Swift Boat group effectively pierced his image as a war hero and ultimately doomed his candidacy. "It might have the same effect [as the Swift Boat campaign], but our effort will be 100% accurate and truthful," Schaitberger said.
The union's actions are among several threats that could put Giuliani on the defensive in discussing the very aspect of his record that defines his national persona. Lawyers want to question the former mayor under oath as part of a federal lawsuit alleging that the city negligently dumped body parts and other human remains from ground zero in the Fresh Kills garbage facility on Staten Island.
Giuliani's testimony "could undercut his hero status," said Norman Siegel, the lawyer representing families who brought the suit. Siegel is also consulting with some families who have discussed forming a committee aimed at influencing the presidential race.
In a separate matter, one of Giuliani's most prominent political rivals, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), is considering calling the former mayor to testify before a Senate committee on whether the government failed to shield recovery workers from the effects of polluted air after the attacks.
The hearing could provide the unusual spectacle of one party's presidential front-runner questioning the other party's front-runner on an emotionally charged subject central to both of their campaigns.
Giuliani's televised news conferences and other actions after the Sept. 11 attacks helped him build an image as a cool and competent manager who counseled a frightened nation through unimaginable loss. That image has spurred his rise in surveys of Republican voters, acting as a counterbalance to his liberal positions on abortion, gay rights and other social issues, which typically disqualify a candidate in the eyes of conservatives.
But Giuliani has also left bitterness among the families of some Sept. 11 victims.
Representatives of some families said they have not yet decided whether to create a political organization but plan to speak out aggressively against Giuliani. The families are wary of being painted as overly political.
"This is going to be a war for truth," said Sally Regenhard, whose 28-year-old son, Christian, was one of 343 New York firefighters who died in the attacks. "I'll be speaking out as a mother and a parent."
Critics are considering ways to back up their claims with video footage, documents and perhaps audio from recently released emergency dispatch tapes -- though no decision has been made whether they would create television ads with the material.
Anthony V. Carbonetti, a strategist for Giuliani who was also mayoral chief of staff and later a business partner, said Giuliani's presidential campaign would respond by showcasing Giuliani's long-standing relationships with rank-and-file firefighters and police officers.
The mayor opened firehouses, Carbonetti said, and pushed for new "bunker gear" that protected firefighters from intense heat. He attributed the union's anger to disagreements over city pay issues and partisan interests -- the International Assn. of Fire Fighters was an early supporter of Kerry, the Democratic nominee, in the 2004 presidential campaign.
"The union is not the firefighters. You have to separate the two," Carbonetti said. "I don't think they'll have any success. The more we keep talking about Rudy's record, the more people will see how much he did to support all the uniformed services in the city."
Giuliani's aides have enlisted help from Lee Ielpi, a retired New York firefighter whose 29-year-old son, Jonathan, also a firefighter, died in the World Trade Center. Ielpi said he got to know the mayor after the attacks.
"Rudy Giuliani was not flying those planes. Terrorists flew those planes and caused that disaster on 9/11," Ielpi said. "Giuliani just happened to be the figure who was mayor at the time who did a spectacular job to the best of his abilities."
Clinton has also made the Sept. 11 attacks a theme on the presidential campaign trail. She has been using the 9/11 experience to reach out to union leaders who can help her win the Democratic nomination. Clinton has cited her work securing federal money for New York's reconstruction and in probing the health effects of poor air quality on workers in the months after the attacks.
Without criticizing Giuliani, Clinton has told several unions that the Bush administration failed them in the wake of the attacks by allowing them to work in unhealthy conditions. Her comments have come in speeches to the Communications Workers of America, the Building & Construction Trades union and in private meetings with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- all of whom, she says, contributed to the recovery efforts, and all of whom will play a key role in deciding who wins the coveted AFL-CIO endorsement.
A spokesman said Clinton had not decided whether she would call Giuliani to testify before a subcommittee she heads that is looking into World Trade Center air quality issues. The meeting is expected to focus mostly on actions by federal environmental protection officials.
The Fresh Kills lawsuit presents further complications for Giuliani. If the families fend off an attempt by city officials to dismiss the suit, Siegel, the lawyer, said he plans to question Giuliani on his post-9/11 decisions.
"Most Americans don't know that this was dumped in a garbage dump," Siegel said, referring to claims that human remains wound up in the landfill. "Who made that decision? He will have to answer questions under oath."
Giuliani's dispute with the firefighters union erupted publicly last month when he declined to attend the group's candidate forum. Schaitberger then distributed a scathing three-page letter laying out what he called Giuliani's "disgraceful" treatment of firefighters after 9/11. A central complaint was an order from the mayor in November 2001 that, citing safety reasons, limited the number of people who could work on the still-smoldering pile at ground zero.
Firefighters were irate because some of their comrades' remains were still unrecovered. Giuliani reversed his decision, but the anger did not subside.
"Our disdain for him is not about issues or a disputed contract, it is about a visceral, personal affront to the fallen," Schaitberger wrote.
The union and some families charge that Giuliani failed to modernize communications systems that on Sept. 11, they say, proved unable to relay an evacuation order to some firefighters in the World Trade Center.
Giuliani and other city officials have said that communication lapses came because the attacks rendered parts of the system inoperable, and that other parts were overloaded with calls in the chaos. They also say that many firefighters who did hear the evacuation order probably ignored it in hopes of saving more people.
Critics also point to Giuliani's decision to place the city's emergency command center in the World Trade Center complex, even though the towers had already been targeted in a 1993 bombing. The office, on the 23rd floor at 7 World Trade Center, was destroyed in the Sept. 11 attacks, forcing the mayor and other officials to establish makeshift command posts.
For Giuliani, who turned his image as "America's Mayor" into a lucrative career as a security consultant and motivational speaker, confronting critics of his 9/11 leadership on the national stage will be a new experience.
Two men who did quiz him once -- the chairmen of the bipartisan federal commission that investigated the attacks -- lamented that they might have been too soft on Giuliani when he testified in 2004.
"We did not ask tough questions, nor did we get all of the information we needed to put on the public record," wrote commission co-chairmen Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton in their book, "Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission."
Kean later credited Giuliani with answering questions in a private session. He told National Public Radio that putting the command center in the World Trade Center "was not, in retrospect, the wisest decision in the world," but he said he did not blame Giuliani for outdated communications systems that continue to plague fire and police, not just in New York but across the country.