Giuliani stumps in Central Valley

Times Staff Writer

Farmers from around the nation gathered on acres of dusty flats in this Central Valley town on Tuesday to ponder displays of shiny new tractors, plows and dairy machines.

For a trade-show crowd accustomed to swapping ideas on crops and livestock, the topic of Rudolph W. Giuliani’s breakfast speech was a sober diversion: terrorism.

“This desire of these terrorists to come here and kill us is going to continue, and we’ve got to focus on how we’re going to protect ourselves,” the former New York City mayor told several hundred farmers from a makeshift stage in a giant shed.


So it goes in the nascent presidential campaign of the Republican whose fading political career sprang back to life in the aftermath of the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11. In five days of campaigning in California, Giuliani has made terrorism his paramount focus -- that and his story of a New York turnaround on his watch at City Hall.

At stops in Sacramento, Santa Clara, Fresno and Tulare, Giuliani also outlined a business-friendly agenda for the country, though he was light on details.

But what drew crowds of autograph seekers was the man who led New York through Sept. 11, and for Giuliani, every campaign venue was suitable for invoking memories of the attacks.

“Most of the first hour was just reacting quickly,” he recalled Monday in a speech to Silicon Valley business leaders. “When you get attacked like that,” he told the farmers at the World Ag Expo on Tuesday, “there’s a period of time when you feel really isolated.”

He has also shared his recollections of the twin towers attacks in paid speeches around the world, and plans do so again today at a private event in San Diego. (A spokeswoman declined to say who would pay him or how much.) But now those stories are central to his core campaign theme: America, he says, must stay on offense against terrorists.

“For a long part of my life, my job was law enforcement, so I’ve known about terrorism for quite some time,” the former federal prosecutor told farmers.

In Santa Clara, he opened his speech by imitating Marlon Brando’s gravelly voice in “The Godfather,” an old Giuliani gag that now serves to remind voters that he prosecuted mobsters in the 1980s.

His California tour has erased any doubt that Giuliani would seek his party’s 2008 White House nomination. “Yes, I am running,” he said Tuesday.

But while testing themes, he has stuck to tightly controlled events that minimize his exposure to tough questions on the Iraq war, domestic policy or the private business deals and speeches that have made him wealthy.

A supporter of President Bush’s troop buildup, Giuliani has framed Iraq as a battle in the war on terrorism without addressing questions on its original rationale. “If we succeed in Iraq, or if we fail in Iraq, the terrorists are still going to be at war with us, and we have to keep reminding ourselves this is much broader than Iraq,” he told the crowd in Santa Clara. “It’s also Iran and Syria and getting Afghanistan right.”

Beyond terrorism, Giuliani has tried to spotlight his pro-business leanings. In Sacramento, he told a Jewish Republican group that he would “preserve the essence” of the nation’s healthcare system but cut malpractice judgments and give consumers incentives to buy insurance. “We can’t move toward socialized medicine,” he said.

At the Tulare farm show, the Brooklyn native conceded he was “not a big expert on agriculture policy,” but added: “I will be by the time we finish this campaign. And I promise you I will be if I’m president of the United States.”

In Santa Clara, Giuliani said the country must “do something” about global warming. But he showed little inclination to break with Bush or his Republican congressional allies, who have resisted new pollution restraints on industry. Asked about California’s landmark law mandating carbon emission cuts to combat global warming, Giuliani said he was unfamiliar with it. He called for more nuclear power, expanded ethanol production and cleaner coal mining.

“There is a special interest to stop every one of those new technologies -- either special conflicting economic interest, or a special interest that has exaggerated things beyond proportion, like the fear of nuclear power,” he said. “We’ve had nuclear power in this country for a long time. We’ve never had a fatality.”

Campaigning a few hours later at a Mimi’s Cafe in Fresno, Giuliani declined to say whether the U.S. should tighten automotive mileage standards. He also acknowledged, in response to a question, that his consulting and law clients included power companies that would benefit from the steps he advocated.

But he said that his views on energy were largely driven by the idea that “America needs to exploit and develop a lot more energy, and you have to get to be energy independent.”

For the most part, Giuliani has limited himself to questions from friendly interviewers -- such as Sean Hannity of Fox News last week -- or local TV reporters. “What’s the neatest thing you’ve seen so far?” he was asked at the World Ag Expo.

“Well, the milk machines were real neat,” Giuliani replied from a podium adorned with crates of lemons and oranges.

Giuliani also displayed some of the expertise gained in decades of sparring with New York’s media. He used a question on his support for gun control -- a potential obstacle to the Republican nomination -- to hail the drop in crime during his mayoralty, due in part, he said, to weapons seizures.

“It’s very, very hard to even think about this -- calculate the number of lives saved, the number of people alive that wouldn’t have been alive if New York City had continued the level of murder when I came into office,” he said.

Giuliani also has faced questions on illegal immigrants. He favors putting them on a path to citizenship as long as they learn English and wait their turn behind lawful immigrants -- another stand that puts him at odds with many of the conservatives who dominate Republican primaries. But each time the topic arose, Giuliani returned the focus to terrorism.

“We have to know who’s in the country,” he said as news crews followed him through the dinner crowd at the Fresno restaurant. “We have to be able to identify them. It’s always been important, but it became a lot more important after Sept. 11, so that we don’t allow terrorists, drug dealers and others to victimize us.”

By and large, crowds responded favorably. After listening to him in Tulare, Rita Goping, 66, a Republican dairy farmer from Sheboygan, Wis., said she was “glad he’s for keeping the war going.”

“That’s the only way you’re going to fight them,” she said. “If we leave, it will just make the terrorists believe we’re cowards.”