(CNSNews.com) - Social conservatives are indicating support for the 2008 presidential campaign of Rudy Giuliani in early polls, despite ideological differences with the former New York City mayor on such charged topics as abortion, gun control and homosexual rights.
The latest USA Today/Gallup poll shows Giuliani holding a 10-point lead over his nearest Republican primary rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) - who this week plans to formally announce that he is running for president.
The lead widens to 18 points when Republican respondents are asked to choose between the two leading candidates in a head-to-head race. Giuliani has led the crowded GOP field since the beginning of the year.
Some political scientists and influential evangelical leaders anticipate a falloff in support for Giuliani once his views on cultural issues and details of his personal life come under closer scrutiny as the contest plays out. Political analysts note that until now, Giuliani has largely been viewed on the basis of his widely heralded performance on 9/11.
Once the conservative base takes a closer look, it is likely to recoil and shop elsewhere. So say many pundits as well as Republican rivals, who hope to capitalize on tensions between Giuliani and evangelicals, pro-life voters and Second Amendment supporters.
Yet at the same time, more than a few voices on the right are rising to Giuliani's defense. And history shows that, in challenging political climates, American conservatives have often been willing forgo ideological purity in exchange for strategic gains.
Some heavyweights in the conservative movement argue that Giuliani's record as mayor reflects strong free market convictions, a commitment to limited government and the pursuit of cultural renewal. They say that a closer look at his achievements in New York City will excite, rather than alienate, social and economic conservatives.
Among those endorsing "America's mayor" are flat-tax champion Steve Forbes - himself a two-time Republican presidential candidate; former Solicitor General Ted Olson; and Republican lawmakers Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana.
Forbes told Cybercast News Service the mayor's appeal with conservative voters goes beyond strengths in law enforcement and counter-terrorism and includes impressive economic achievements built on a foundation of fiscal discipline. As mayor, Giuliani implemented significant tax cuts and spending cuts, which in turn re-energized New York City's economic climate, he said.
Even where philosophical disagreements emerge, Forbes said, social conservatives can still find points of convergence.
"Many of the policies he pursued actually enhanced the pro-life cause," he argued.
For instance, Giuliani's welfare reform initiative moved millions of New Yorkers back into the workforce where they began to lead productive lives, Forbes said. The shift from welfare to work resulted in a sharp drop in the number of abortions under Giuliani's watch.
In fact, abortion rates fell faster in NYC during this time than in the nation as a whole -- a point Forbes said should not be lost on the pro-life community.
'A score to settle' with terrorists
Heading into the campaign, the biggest factors fueling Giuliani's popularity stem from his leadership in the war against terrorism, according to political analysts and supporters. Apart from his well-known 9/11 role, he also had a hand in breaking up the terror cells responsible for the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.
Charles Dunn, dean of the school of government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, drew parallels between Giuliani and Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.
As Eisenhower benefited from his proven leadership during World War II, Giuliani is highly regarded for confronting terrorism today, he said.
In 1952, conservative voters were closer ideologically to Eisenhower's primary rival, Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, but nonetheless they supported the World War II hero. Dunn said a similar dynamic may be at work in 2007-8.
Giuliani distinguishes himself from the field in both parties because he is the only candidate to exhibit effective leadership in a major crisis, he said.
Forbes agrees. "He's the one candidate who would make the terrorist say 'uh-oh' if he got in," he said. "They know he has a score to settle, and he comes across as someone who would find ways to do this."
With Islamists targeting America at home and overseas, social conservatives and Republican primary voters of all stripes are pining for strong executive leadership and Giuliani fits the bill, Janice Crouse, a spokeswoman for the Concerned Women of America's political action committee, said in an interview.
The skills Giuliani exhibited in "standing up to terrorism" can be directly applied to the executive branch where the president has wide latitude on foreign policy decisions, Crouse said.
Conversely, the scope of a president's power in the realm of domestic policy is more constrained, she argued, and the judicial and legislative branches often impact "right to life" issues more profoundly than the executive.
John Sides, associate professor of political science at George Washington University, said both opportunities and pitfalls lie ahead for Giuliani. "He could endear himself" to primary voters by "supporting half-measures that move in a pro-life direction," Sides said.
Nonetheless, Giuliani faces hurdles in the form of "elite figures" in the evangelical and conservative Catholic constituencies, he added. If they became "more explicit" in their criticism, support could erode for the former mayor. A key person to watch, Sides said, is James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family.
"The field is unsettled, in no small part because Christian conservatives are not enthusiastic," Sides told Cybercast News Service.
Polls that put Giuliani in the lead also show that one-third of Republicans would like to see another candidate enter the race, with ongoing speculation swirling around the possibility that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson may do so.
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