WASHINGTON -- Two stunning but little-noticed political developments have turned the race for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination into a two-man sprint.
The first is that Rudy Giuliani is leading the GOP pack in South Carolina, a rock-ribbed conservative state where you would think a socially liberal Republican would not be doing that well.
The second is that while Giuliani remains the clear front-runner in all the national Republican voter polls, Mitt Romney, who trails in fourth place in the same surveys, is leading in the first four party-preference contests in January.
Both developments say a lot about the changes going on in the GOP these days and, perhaps, about the weakness of the party's conservative wing in the presidential-selection process.
Conservative-movement activists who cringe at the idea of Giuliani as the GOP's nominee have been unable to unite behind an alternative. They have talked up Fred Thompson. But the word at the grassroots is that the former television and movie actor has been something of a disappointment on the stump -- unprepared on the issues and a bit lazy, to boot.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, whom conservatives have never trusted, especially on social issues or tax policy, has been fading. All the others in the back of the pack are not considered serious candidates.
Two forces are propelling Giuliani's candidacy. First, the former mayor, who led New York City back from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has staked out national security as his major issue at a time when terrorism and the war in Iraq overwhelm just about everything else.
He is seen as a tough, take-charge leader who fully understands the stakes in the war on terrorism and looks and sounds like someone who knows how to keep our country safe and win the war at the same time.
That counts for a lot among the party faithful, especially in conservative places like South Carolina.
Second, he is seen as the only Republican who can defeat Sen. Hillary Clinton, perhaps the only political figure who would unite a fractious party in the 2008 general election.
According to the latest national polls, Giuliani was ahead of the pack by an average of 27.8 percent, followed by Thompson at 22.4 percent and McCain at 14.4 percent.
But what are we to make of Mitt Romney, the far-less-well-known former Massachusetts governor who has gone through a conversion of sorts on the party's major social issues -- from abortion rights to gun control?
While pollsters and pundits alike have been focusing on the national horse race, where Romney trails with a mere 9 percent, he is leading in Iowa, Michigan, Nevada and New Hampshire -- the states that will kick off the GOP's nominating process next year.