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Giuliani’s Weak Spot?

It’s not easy for a thrice-divorced Catholic mayor with a penchant for drag and a pro-choice, pro-immigration, and pro-gun control record to become the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Then again, it’s not easy to attack that candidate as your typical, sinister, white guy in a suit, either.

For months, the liberal press has stood back, expecting either that Rudy Giuliani would self-destruct—as he did in his aborted 2000 senate campaign, when he entered into a nasty, high-profile divorce, crashed on the couch of gay friends, and publicly discussed the effects of his cancer treatments on his sex life—or that Republicans would disavow him once they learned more about his personal life and political views. When it comes to his 9/11 performance, though, Giuliani’s foes have barely touched on what just may be the most vulnerable part of his record.

When Giuliani announced his candidacy last November, the DNC responded with a press release attacking Giuliani for being…too left-wing—he was once a registered Democrat, he opposed the partial-birth abortion ban and some of Bush’s tax cuts, and he supported gay rights. In an editorial, the New York Sun remarked, “Mr. Giuliani may want to keep this press release on file for use in a general election campaign…. ‘Even the Democratic National Committee says I am pro-choice,’ Mr. Giuliani is going to be able to tell Democrats and independent voters.”

The incoherence of the DNC press release (which also attacked Giuliani for being too right-wing!) helped the candidate survive a choppy, ill-prepared launch, in which he stumbled badly while answering easy questions about abortion, the Terri Schiavo affair, and the various ethics and corruption scandals involving his former police commissioner, Bernard Kerik, which came out after President Bush nominated Kerik for Secretary of Homeland Security. Before these mistakes could crystallize into a defining moment, though, Giuliani righted the ship. That said, his critics on the Left continue to miss the mark in their hunt to bring down the Republican with the most appeal to Democratic and independent voters.

Consider three recent critiques of the candidate. In the New Yorker, a remarkably long—sixteen pages and nearly 15,000 words—and meandering profile by Peter J. Boyer offers a too-cute-by-half inversion of the newly outdated conventional wisdom that the South will bring down Giuliani as it did McCain in 2000. After a thinly-sourced accounting of how Giuliani’s contentious style rubbed many New Yorkers the wrong way, the article reaches the conclusion that, as one second-tier critic of the mayor puts it, “All the things that a lot of New Yorkers, myself included, hate about this guy are the things that are actually fuelling his campaign.” Thousands of words into what’s effectively a sanctioned hit focused on how Giuliani alienated New Yorkers, Boyer correctly concludes that this alienation may be a political asset, and certainly does no harm.

Still less effective is the cover story of the August issue of Harper’s, “A Fate Worse Than Bush,” by the superb historical novelist Kevin Smith. It’s a nine-page complaint about how in the “new politics, the candidate is everything” (how this differs from the old politics escapes me). Smith claims that Giuliani governed through “regular authoritarian gestures” and “achieved almost nothing of significance.” As in the New Yorker piece, there’s plenty at which the self-satisfied can nod knowingly, but nothing of worth for those still considering their decision, let alone the writers and operatives looking to craft a compelling critique of Giuliani.

The one attack with some teeth comes from Village Voice political reporter Wayne Barrett, the legendary digger who’s long played Ahab to the mayor’s white whale. In “Rudy Giuliani’s Five Big Lies About 9/11,” the cover story of last week’s Voice, Barrett launches a lengthy, and at points compelling, attack on the mayor’s 9/11 record. Most resonant is Barrett’s well-documented claim that Giuliani did little to protect the health and safety of first responders, who, at an alarming rate, are being diagnosed with cancer and various rare illness.

As previously noted in these pages, Giuliani’s decision to focus on 9/11 and neglect the rest of his accomplishments as mayor leaves him highly vulnerable to an effective assault on his record in the days and months following the terrorist attack. It’s a danger from which he attempted to insulate himself with his claim earlier this week that “I was at Ground Zero as often, if not more, than most of the workers…. I was there working with them. I was exposed to exactly the same things they were exposed to.” First responders and political foes pounced on the statement, for which Giuliani quickly apologized.

It was a rare misstep from his increasingly disciplined campaign, but it was a dangerous one—there’s little doubt that the health issues swirling around first responders will become a national story before the campaign is over. While this story will also hurt Clinton and Bloomberg to some extent, it’s Giuliani who has the most to lose should his image as a heroic responder be tarnished.


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