Rudy in waiting?

Kathryn Lopez

1/8/2007 11:01:00 AM - Kathryn Lopez

Abstinence educators and responsible parents teach young people to resist the urge for instant gratification. When it comes to the Republican presidential field, a similar strategy of waiting may prove fruitful for Rudolph Giuliani. Of course, Rudy 2008 would be well advised to avoid the subject of sex -- an area that highlights his troubled personal past and not-so-conservative positions on reproductive issues. But if Rudy can be patient and practice political abstinence as his rivals engage in hot combat, the former New York City mayor could prove to have a leg up in the 2008 Republican race.

Going into 2007, conservatives' best option, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is already a bit wounded. The problem? Some chattering Beltway conservatives with access to wide-reaching e-mail lists simply don't believe he is one of them. It's understandable. Massachusetts isn't known for its right-wing leaders. But if conservatives don't hear him out, it will be their (and America's) loss: This Northeastern businessman is a leadership package that has the potential to do social conservatives and their ideas a great service, by presenting conservative positions on cloning, gay marriage and other contentious issues in a worldly, but sincere and principled, way.

Alas, the "Massachusetts flip-flopper" label he has been pinned with might stick. It's more than a bit unfair, given that John Kerry, the last Massachusetts pol stuck with that moniker, was changing positions even during his presidential campaign. (What was his position on Iraq? I'm still not clear.) Romney, on the other hand, as chief executive, has reacted to key events in Massachusetts as a social conservative -- opposing efforts to clone human life, and insisting that Bay State citizens, not the state's high court, should determine the future of marriage there.

It's way too soon to count Romney out, but if he does falter, will conservatives go for John McCain? The Arizona senator is the putative frontrunner among Republicans. He's a war hero with an impressive biography of service. But he's also made an early gamble, enthusiastically supporting increased U.S. troops in Iraq. Democrat John Edwards has latched onto that early on -- knowing it's an unpopular position about an unpopular war -- and denounced what he's calling the "McCain Doctrine." Edwards acknowledging McCain's the man to beat could help McCain. Or it could do further damage if, heaven forbid, a troop surge doesn't help things in Iraq.

Conservatives also know that McCain isn't their biggest fan. On the same day Romney was officially joining the presidential-exploration mix, a "Vanity Fair" article was released portraying McCain as indifferent to issues like abortion and marriage. And then there is his assault on free speech, known as the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform, a source of great angst on the right. Conservative misgivings about McCain are a great opening for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who's known as a conservative ideas guy on a whole host of issues. But, among other things, Gingrich has not put together an exploratory committee, and smart money doesn't have him going all the way.

So where do conservatives go from there? Maybe, just maybe, to their least likely nominee: Rudy. Giuliani has the hard-to-beat advantage of being a household name, known by his first name. In a short-lived 2000 Senate race, he refused to oppose partial-birth abortion, but in 2006 he campaigned for pro-life stalwart Rick Santorum (ex-senator from Pennsylvania). While doing so, he said (possibly with more of an eye on 2008 than 2006 voters): "You never have a political leader in which you have total agreement, not if they're being honest." Giuliani, who led New York after 9/11 as the world watched, recently said, "The reality here is that the Islamo-fundamentalist terrorists are at war with our way of life, with our modern world, with rights for women, religious freedom, societies that have religious freedom." That's clarity you don't always hear from the current president.

So is it Rudy 2008 for the GOP? Not by a long shot. But staying low-key for a while and watching the other guys fight it out, inflicting wounds on one another, is not an insane strategy. At least for America's mayor. And that is something conservatives might want to keep in mind as some appear to be poised to kill off their most obvious conservative alternative early.