Question: How can the gun-controlling, abortion-supporting, gay-friendly Rudy Giuliani be 25 percentage points ahead of John McCain, his nearest GOP presidential competitor, in the latest Newsweek poll?
Answer: Contrary to popular belief, evangelicals (who comprise the party's base) are fully capable of chewing gum and voting at the same time.
No, evangelicals haven't abandoned the faith-based domestic agenda that brought them to the polls for Bush in 2004. But, in wartime, they have other concerns as well.
I saw this on display last year when, at a D.C. evangelical banquet, Rudy stole the show from (just-indicted) Tom DeLay. DeLay spoke in the emotional cadences of the southern church; Giuliani sounded like a Brooklyn civics teacher. But Rudy got the bigger ovation.
Once again, much of the audience at last weekend's CPAC convention in Washington was social conservatives, but once again, Rudy refused to pander to them. "We disagree on maybe 20 percent of the issues," he acknowledged. For this, he was rewarded with cheers and an impressive second-place finish in the convention's straw poll.
Giuliani's honesty wasn't an act of simple courage.
The ex-mayor is far too calculating for that. He knows — as the other Republicans are now realizing — that, all things being equal, wartime leadership is the most important issue for evangelicals.
And, in this race, all things are pretty much equal, at least among the major candidates: They're all sinners. Sure, Rudy is a big-city Catholic. But Mitt Romney is a big-city Mormon, a religion many evangelicals see as "heretical." Even those who'll overlook theology are highly skeptical of Romney's recent breathless conversion to the Christian right's social agenda. Nobody likes a flip-flopper from Massachusetts.
As for McCain, despite his pilgrimage to Jerry Falwell, he has not been forgiven by the evangelical rank-and-file for his "agents of intolerance" crack in 2000. Conservative Christians, who tend to see themselves as a scorned and despised community, will not readily vote for someone who has mocked them in public and — many suspect — is still mocking them privately.
The evangelical leadership doesn't like McCain, either, mostly because of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law. Whatever Sen. McCain's intention, one result of this legislation is that it has cut off money from the GOP to faith-based precinct captains. Such a transgression makes Rudy's occasional cross-dressing no more than a cultural misdemeanor.
Indeed, outsiders often underestimate the evangelical tolerance for human frailty. Falwell's own museum at Liberty University prominently features his father — a locally infamous bootlegger who shot and killed his own brother.
That tolerance holds for politicians (especially those in their own party). These folks want a champion in the White House, not a role model — and Rudy fits the bill.
It is widely known that, as mayor, he went to court to stop the Brooklyn Museum from putting up an exhibit that included an image of the Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung. Rudy lost the legal battle, but he gained points with evangelicals. Anybody can defend the Christian symbols in red-state America; it takes a man to stand up for the Virgin Mary in New York City.
Rudy personifies fearlessness. As mayor, he took on the mob, the media and the muggers. He made New York safe for tourists. And he shook his fist at the terrorists on 9/11. He is a wartime leader.
Most evangelicals don't share the sophisticated view that the conflict with the Islamic world was cooked up by Halliburton, Karl Rove or a cabal of neocons. They believe that the United States is engaged in an actual battle of civilizations. Rudy sees it the same way, and they know it.
John McCain knows it, too. He has invested his political future in supporting Bush's "troop surge" in Iraq. But McCain is a hero from another war. It is Rudy who walked the streets of New York caked in the gray dust of the World Trade Center.
In the end, Giuliani's differences with the GOP's social conservatives will probably win him their respect. What kind of commander-in-chief would he be, after all, if they can bully him into embracing fake pieties?
Rudy's pugnacity will also allow him to deal, ju-jitsu style, with attacks by his opponents on his manifold human failings (assuming there are no major financial improprieties or minor children involved). All he has to do is stay on offense and let the evangelical voters of the Republican base see for themselves that he is the kind of tough-minded leader a dangerous and unpopular war requires.