Of course, Giuliani's national profile expanded enormously because of 9/11. And while the press harps on that point, the more interesting part of the story lies elsewhere. The war on terror hasn't just changed Giuliani's profile as a crisis-leader, it's changed the attitudes of many Americans, particularly conservatives, about the central crisis facing the country. It's not that pro-lifers are less pro-life or that social conservatives are suddenly OK with homosexuality, gun control and other issues where Giuliani's dissent from mainstream conservative opinion would normally disqualify him. It's that they really, really believe the war on terror is for real. At conservative conferences, on blogs and on talk radio, pro-life issues have faded in their passion and intensity compared with the war on terror. Taken together, terrorism, Iraq and Islam have become the No. 1 social issue for conservative base of the party.
Note: I didn't say it's become the No. 1 foreign-policy or national-security issue for social conservatives. It's become the No. 1 social issue, at least for many of them.
Unambiguous polling data is hard to come by on this point, but the anecdotal data is enormous. From my e-mail alone, it's obvious. Books that frontally challenge Islam as a religion have become mainstays of conservative publishing. Meanwhile, Dinesh D'Souza's book, "The Enemy at Home," a passionate, socially conservative polemic calling for the American right to align itself with traditional Muslims against the domestic left and Islamic extremists, has found itself almost entirely undefended on the right for its perceived effort to "blame America first."
William Bennett, the famed "virtue czar," emphasizes the civilizational struggle more than any other and gets an enormous response from social conservatives. Even before the war on terror, evangelicals embraced Israel for myriad reasons, among them a theological affinity for the Jewish state and a faith that it is an imperiled sister democracy. Such convictions are only multiplied and personalized for these Americans by events since 9/11. At National Review's "conservative summit" last month, Romney talked at length about abortion but gave short shrift to the war, and the disappointment in the room was palpable.
That's not to say either Romney or Giuliani will win, but they're the ones to watch because they get to design their first impressions in a way other top-tier candidates like John McCain and Newt Gingrich can't. Romney and Giuliani, both immensely attractive, savvy and well-funded politicians, are in effect the canaries in the coal mine of conservative politics. If either emerges from the dark tunnels of primary season alive, it will tell us a great deal about the future of the GOP and American politics.