Michael Gerson

With the same rootless confidence that causes people to ignore hurricane warnings, many social conservatives remain in denial about Rudy Giuliani's chances of winning the Republican nomination.

But with three debates and eight months as the Republican front-runner under his belt, Giuliani's political strength cannot be dismissed as a fad or a fluke. His skills as a campaigner are considerable. His political strategy is plausible: Play down Iowa and New Hampshire, win Florida on Jan. 29, and sweep the big states (New York, California, Illinois) on Feb. 5, securing the nomination before a social-conservative reaction can set in. The Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney camps have their own victory scenarios, but they are not more likely.

So it is not too early for Republicans to consider some consequences of a Giuliani nomination.

To begin with, the ideological shift would be greater than meets the eye. Giuliani plays up his continuity with the Republican past, particularly with Ronald Reagan. But Reagan, of course, was a committed social conservative who expressed reservations about choosing George H.W. Bush as his running mate because of his questionable pro-life views. Giuliani's style and approach are actually much closer to those of another politically successful Republican president: Richard Nixon, pre-Watergate.

In his elections, Nixon appealed to conservatives and the country as a culture warrior who was not a moral or religious conservative. "Permissiveness," he told key aides, "is the key theme," and Nixon pressed that theme against hippie protesters, tenured radicals and liberals who bad-mouthed America. This kind of secular, tough-on-crime, tough-on-communism conservatism gathered a "silent majority" that loved Nixon for the enemies he made.

By this standard, Giuliani is a Nixon Republican. He is perhaps the most publicly secular major candidate of either party -- his conflicts with Roman Catholic teaching make him more reticent on religion than either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. But as a prosecutor and mayor of New York, he won conservative respect for making all the right enemies: the ACLU, advocates of blasphemous art, purveyors of racial politics, Islamist mass murderers, mob bosses and the New York Times editorial page.

On the evidence of the polls, many conservatives are ready for a little cultural combat, and Giuliani looks like a man who knows how to use a knife. He might successfully appeal to blue-collar resentment against liberal elitism and Democratic antiwar overreach, while winning back some pro-choice, suburban female voters.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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