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Background aside, GOP women like Giuliani

Times Staff Writer

Rudolph W. Giuliani is married to his third wife, his kids barely talk to him and he’s comfortable with leaving intact the national policy permitting abortion.

Oh -- and he’s the former mayor of New York City, a modern Gomorrah to many here at the biennial conference of the National Federation of Republican Women.

You’d think that Giuliani would get little more than a polite round of applause from the mostly conservative crowd of 2,000 women. But as the only Republican presidential candidate to travel to the desert this weekend to address the group, Giuliani scored some solid points with -- and a few standing ovations from -- a key constituency, the women activists within his own party.

“We’re the worker bees,” said Cathy Philips, a delegate from Lakeland, Fla., after Giuliani spoke She added that many attendees were disappointed that other Republican contenders skipped the conference of the group, a 100,000-member grass-roots organization that dates to 1938. “I heard some women say last night they felt offended, almost, that all the others didn’t see fit to come.”

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“That’s a kick in the head, isn’t it?” said Evelyn Blume, 83, of San Carlos, in San Diego County. “It’s a shame too, because we don’t have a clear front-runner.”

Maybe not, but Giuliani -- ahead in nearly all the polls -- has been trying to act like a front-runner.

Saturday morning, he resumed his harsh criticism of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York -- the Democratic front-runner -- as though they were already squaring off in a general election. Giuliani criticized Clinton for what he said was her failure in Wednesday’s Democratic debate to promise to stop nuclear armaments in Iran and for what he described as a shifting position on how and when she would end the war in Iraq.

“If people vote for me, or if they don’t, they should know this,” Giuliani said, drawing a raucous ovation in the cavernous Palm Springs Convention Center. “Here’s what I believe will end . . . the battle in Iraq: victory for the United States of America.”

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Giuliani’s mostly warm reception here marked something of a shift. A Times poll in June found Giuliani saddled with a gender gap -- support from 35% of Republican men nationwide, but only 21% of Republican women. Former Sen. Fred Thompson -- not in the race at that time -- had a similar split, with support from 33% of men and 15% of women. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had a gap in the other direction:14% of women favored him compared with 5% of men.

But a Gallup Poll released Friday shows a radical shift in the landscape, with Giuliani enjoying slightly more support among women than men, 34% to 31%. Thompson still faced a gender gap, getting support from 25% of men but 16% of women -- something convention-goers suggested was rooted in personal reactions to Thompson’s second wife, Jeri. She is more than two decades younger than Thompson and she has shocked some conservative sensibilities by wearing outfits with plunging necklines.

“Mature women like me look at that and think: ‘That could be my husband, run off with some pretty young thing,’ ” Mona Blocker Garcia, a delegate from Marfa, Texas, said Friday afternoon as she sipped a rum and cola with a friend in the convention hotel’s lounge.

Still, Giuliani’s family baggage is laced with the foibles that one would expect to play poorly with Republican women. Giuliani riveted New York City when, while still mayor, he announced during a 2000 news conference that his second marriage was over -- before telling his then-wife, Donna Hanover. Hanover later asked a judge to bar Giuliani from bringing his girlfriend (and now wife) to the New York mayor’s official residence, Gracie Mansion, while the family still lived there.

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“That whole Gracie Mansion thing leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” said Christine Peters of Amherst, N.H.

For others, Giuliani’s personal past is irrelevant.

“I’ve been married 3 ½ times, so how can I judge him?” said Giuliani supporter Patricia Fitkin, of Rancho Mirage, as she waited with two friends for the bar to open at a Friday night reception. “We need somebody who’s a little conservative, but who’s also kind of liberal, so we might get him in. We might get some Democrats” to vote for him.

But he first has to get the Republicans to vote for him. Though he’s doing well in polls, he is drawing support from only one-third of the party. Among the hurdles, especially among conservative women: his stances on abortion and other social issues such as gay rights.

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“He’s really strong on what I think is important -- national security,” said Delores Pell of Arlington, Texas. She does think the abortion issue could be a problem for Giuliani. But she was also ready to give him and Romney some consideration for where they won their political battles -- New York City and Massachusetts, both liberal turf.

“Sometimes you have got to court the folks that are going to elect you,” Pell said. “Maybe they had to mitigate their views. But I think he [Giulani] would bring some moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats. And he’s excellent on the stump.”

June Staggers, a self- described conservative delegate from Sioux Falls, S.D., hasn’t made up her mind yet, but at the moment Giuliani and Thompson are getting close consideration. The key issue for her is strong leadership.

“Many conservatives want a conservative who can win,” she said. “We want someone who can articulate our issues. And we are at a very dangerous time. We have to look at who will be a very strong leader.”

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Virginia Ferguson, a delegate from Chapel Hill, N.C., who says she lives a few hundred yards from Democratic former Sen. John Edwards, also remains uncommitted. But she said Giuliani’s personal past is irrelevant compared to his political background and experience.

“I’m really looking for a leader who can get things done and bring the country together,” she said as she browsed items at a silent auction table.

Angie LaPlante, 45, a legislative aide from Edmond, Okla., also hasn’t settled on a candidate yet. Her concern about Giuliani is that as a former federal prosecutor and mayor of New York, his background may be limited.

For LaPlante, whose father, husband and son have military backgrounds, the biggest issues facing the nation are credibility and respect abroad, along with economic stability. She’s uncertain whether Giuliani has the background to deal with those.

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“We want to be respected in other countries,” said LaPlante, finishing a glass of red wine at the reception. “You’ve got to look at the full spectrum. But what it boils down to is that we have time. We will have a good candidate that will restore faith in our country.”

scott.martelle@latimes.com


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