Next to a crackling fire in a picturesque mountain lodge, in the wooded and lightly populated north country, Rudolph W. Giuliani met some of the people who might help him become the next president.
What he gave them was a dose of New York.
When one woman fretted that a local paper mill had eliminated 300 jobs, Giuliani cut her off and advised that she focus on something “positive,” like recruiting a new employer to town.
When a woman worried about rising property taxes, he told her to elect smarter local officials.
A 9-year-old girl, afraid of another attack like the one on Sept. 11, sparked a finger-waving lecture at another point in the day from Giuliani, who said that Democrats were afraid to use the term “Islamic terrorism.” “You have to face your enemy,” he told the third-grader, Kailey Lemieux.
Other politicians might have expressed empathy, or drawn voters into deeper conversation, or lightened the talk of violence around elementary school children. But not the former New York mayor. With his intense demeanor and aggressive policy stances -- such as pledging to “prevent” Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon or to “set them back five or 10 years” -- Giuliani has methodically built an image as the toughest guy on the block, unafraid of looking belligerent in the cause of keeping America safe.
Though it isn’t always pretty up close, Giuliani’s demeanor seems to be working. He leads the national polls for a Republican nomination that many believed he could never win because of his relatively liberal views on abortion and other social issues.
As a counterweight to his positions on social policy, Giuliani has broadened his image, once narrowly rooted in his leadership after Sept. 11, to one that projects strength on many fronts.
The man who led New York City through the trauma of terrorist attacks has promised to keep Al Qaeda on the defensive, possibly even sending troops into Pakistan uninvited. The man who chased prostitutes from Times Square now casts himself as a defender of free speech for religious groups and a protector of families from crime, drugs and high taxes.
And the man who governed a Democratic city as a Republican mayor, staring down the “toughest labor unions that anybody ever met,” is promoting himself as the strongest opponent to the Democrats’ presidential front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
On the campaign trail, some of Giuliani’s rough City Hall edges are smoothed -- a familiar scowl has been replaced by frequent smiles and even a chuckle. But Giuliani has honed his own style of combativeness. As some in New Hampshire saw recently, he is unafraid to dole out tough love.
On Friday, he cut off a man who asked an open-ended question on rural issues, telling him to “give me one problem.” When the man listed two -- jobs and transportation -- Giuliani offered an answer but conceded he had not thought much about it.
“There are not many rural parts of New York City,” he said.
Kathy Johnson, a small-business owner who asked the question about rising property taxes, later said she was surprised at Giuliani’s tone.
“I tried not to be aggressive when I asked my question,” she said, adding: “He seemed so out of touch.”
With most Republican voters seeing Giuliani from a more distant view, that same combativeness is playing well. “When Rudy Giuliani basically says, ‘I’m going to shoot first and ask questions later,’ that’s something that is completely credible coming from him,” said Fergus Cullen, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “And that’s a good thing with Republican audiences, that’s for sure.”
Giuliani’s success has exposed an unusual dynamic in the GOP primary race: National security and electability are trumping cultural issues. It is a dynamic that few anticipated last year, when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain of Arizona began their aggressive courtships of evangelical leaders, such as the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.
The primacy of national security was on display Wednesday, when Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson endorsed Giuliani, citing Islamic terrorists’ “blood lust” as the top issue facing the country and calling Giuliani the best equipped to handle it.
Though the former mayor’s national poll numbers have not risen above the low 30s, he maintains double-digit leads over his closest GOP rivals. And at least some social conservatives appear to be increasingly willing to support Giuliani, despite disagreeing with him on abortion, gay rights, immigration and gun control, and in spite of his three marriages and his strained relations with his children.
Viewed as the strongest GOP contender and the most able to defeat Clinton in the general election, the former mayor is winning support from nearly a third of Republican voters who believe abortion should be outlawed, according to a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey. Many rank-and-file social conservatives appear willing to shirk calls from some leading Christian conservatives, such as Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, to respond to a Giuliani victory in the primary race by leaving the GOP and backing a third-party contender.
He leads in national polls, and surveys show Giuliani running relatively strong in several key early-voting states, including conservative South Carolina. While Giuliani is running second in New Hampshire behind Romney, a recent Rasmussen Reports survey showed that 77% of likely GOP primary voters in that state viewed Giuliani favorably -- more than any other candidate.
“Rudy did a lot of things right early when he got into these early states and introduced himself as more than just the mayor of 9/11,” said Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “If he had run only as the former mayor of New York, he’d be in the single digits.”
Neil Newhouse, an Alexandria, Va.-based Republican pollster, said that what looked only 10 months ago like a “temporary coalition” of moderates and social conservatives backing Giuliani has now “turned into a more stable . . . base that as time goes on will be more difficult for the other candidates to dislodge.”
Giuliani’s rivals have failed to pose a convincing challenge from the right, Newhouse said, and half of GOP voters view Giuliani as the best candidate to beat Clinton.
On the campaign trail, Giuliani rarely fails to cast himself as eager to take on Clinton. He sometimes outright ridicules her, as he did Friday night when he broke into a tap dance as he chanted Clinton’s ambiguous response to a question in last week’s Democratic debate about issuing drivers licenses to illegal immigrants.
“I’m for it -- I’m against it. I’m for it and against it,” he said, shifting from side to side.
A key moment in Giuliani’s campaign for conservative acceptance came last month when he addressed the Values Voters Summit in Washington, a gathering of thousands of religious conservative activists.
In his 30-minute speech, Giuliani essentially portrayed himself as a culture warrior who, despite his views on abortion, would make social conservatives a key part of his inner circle. He laid out his record of cleaning up Times Square, his fight with the Brooklyn Museum of Art over an exhibition featuring a painting of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung, and he assured his audience: “You have nothing to fear from me.”
“I understand the frustration that comes when you feel values are under assault by a culture that is moving in a -- in the wrong direction,” he said.
Still, dangers loom for Giuliani that could undercut his tough image, such as the chance that opponents will dredge up video clips of the times he performed at a political roast, on the TV show “Saturday Night Live” and at other events while dressed as a woman.
“I would bet my last dollar that you’ll see [Giuliani dressed in] drag in a commercial in South Carolina,” said Dawson, the South Carolina party chairman. “It’s my guess that it’ll debut here, and then people will scratch their heads.”
Times staff writer Joe Mathews in Washington contributed to this report.