On the Spot or in the Spotlight: Jim Dyke on Rudy's Approach to the Debate

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: May 15, 2007 3:15 PM

A short interview with Jim Dyke, head of Rudy Giuliani's communications team, about the debate tonight.

MKH: Coming into tonight's debate, everyone's saying the spotlight's on Rudy.  Others might put it differently: Like, the pressure's on Rudy tonight. How does the camp feel and how does Rudy feel about that?

"He’s someone who’s been leading in national polls for three months now….he’s been up in polls in Iowa and N.H. A recent poll in Florida, he’s up….As he’s traveled around, he’s been in the spotlight. This is just a continuation of that.”

MKH: Much hay has been made of Rudy's comments, which many found confusing, on abortion during the first debate. Do you anticipate some tougher shots from opponents tonight on that subject, particularly from McCain?

"You saw he gave a speech in Texas to clarify his views on [social issues] . It’s important to continually explain your position to make sure people understand it."

“I think that there’s a certain danger of people looking a little desperate by taking pot shots.”

MKH: What about the fact that Rudy's abortion position is not a simple one, by any measure. I watched him explain it for 15-20 minutes on Fox News Sunday this week. Is that an inherent problem for him if it takes that long to communicate?

"Look, people want to know about your positions. I think people are pretty smart. People complain about having a long process, but the good news about having time is that people can take a deep breath and really gain an understanding about your positions…You have to continue to do that."

"Soundbites and bumper stickers are what often works…but I’m  not sure that’s the basis on which we want to elect our political leaders."

MKH: Now, I'm from the South, so I'm allowed to make this comment, but Southerners don't necessarily always cotton to Yankees visiting town. However, I know a ton of Southerners who have great affection for the very New York mayor. What does it look like when Rudy Giuliani walks into a South Carolina church barbecue?

"He’s had extremely warm welcomes everywhere he goes. He was in South Carolina…California before that."

“It’s important that the Republican nominee is someone who can connect in the traditional areas and strongholds…but also bring more people into the Republican Party…That’s something that Rudy Giuliani can do.”

“He’s really the first time since Ronald Reagan that we’ve had a possible Republican nominee who could not only win the primary in California, but win California in the general election.”

MKH: Now, at these church picnics, what are South Carolina voters asking Rudy about? Are they inquiring about social issues, pinning him down on judges, or are they sticking to security discussions?

“Well, I don’t know about pinning him down, because he’s pretty comfortable answering the questions…people want to know his position on issues across the board. They want to know what his vision is for America. They also wonder whether he can actually accomplish that vision, and that’s where his record in New York becomes important.”

“He cut taxes in New York City, which I think some people would consider to be the great liberal experiment…He turned places like Times Square around.”

MKH: And, can he make that work in Washington? Washington's a funny beast. We had an ostensibly conservative-ish majority in the House, Senate, and White House, but not a lot of progress on fiscal restraint.

“Washington’s a tough place. There are many different opinions there as well as people that have different ideas about appropriate process…it really does take someone who is a proven leader…He’s a proven leader in an environment that wasn’t very welcoming based on party affiliation.”

“[As president], you’re dealing with crisis, so the ability to have someone who’s a proven crisis manager…and I’m not sure that we’ve had that sort of candidate before who actually has such a significant track record on crisis management.”

MKH: Some have said that the Fort Dix terror plot reminds people of the ever-present threat of terrorism and maybe influences conservatives to put a bit less weight on their social concerns in picking a candidate, which works out well for Rudy. Thoughts?

“You can’t not answer questions about anything. People want to know where you stand on issues. You need to be comfortable with your position and comfortable explaining your position.”

"But, when the New York Subway plot, according to Tenet, was called off because they have bigger things in mind…we oughtta be paying attention. When an attack on Fort Dix is averted, we oughtta be paying attention. There’s plenty of signals, that the terrorist war against us, as Rudy calls it, goes on. And, that's why it’s so important to continue to have a post-9/11 view of the world."

MKH: Because Rudy's position on abortion has proven somewhat hard to explain, do you feel like the 10-candidate debate is a problem for y'all? And, is it an issue in explaining other issues?

“Well, yeah, I think last week they got about seven minutes each. That’s difficult. It’s difficult to really get a sense of where a candidate is…but it’s an important part of the process.”

MKH: How much stock does the Rudy campaign put in national polls vs. state polls. Or, any polls, for that matter, at this point in the game?

"You shouldn’t put too much stock in any of them. Of course, you’d rather be up than down, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. You have to continue to, again, communicate with Republicans, all Americans, about what your position is…you’ll see people use polls to try and gain some ground.

Paraphrased: [Recently], there was a poll that had McCain up in a couple states [that got a lot of attention]. Another recent poll showed Guiliani up a point, and everyone dismisses it as, "well, that can't be right."

"If they're gonna go on polls, they can’t just live by it, they gotta die by it."

“On the Guiliani campaign, we’re more focused on making sure that the mayor has the opportunity is going to explain his vision for America."

MKH: Are you aware that, according to a recent Gallup poll, Mayor Guiliani actually has better name recognition than Lindsay Lohan, and his favorables are much higher? You know, just in case y'all need campaign commercial fodder. 

"His favorables are higher? (laughing) Well, it depends on what your intent is, I guess...whether you want the next president or the star of the next cheesy movie."

MKH: Obviously, the talk of the night is going to be about the abortion issue, but what's the campaign's goal for what it wants to communicate tonight?

“I think the goal is, for him to, with the limited time, try and give people a sense of his position. I think to the degree that people get the sense that we face big challenges in this country…and we need a proven leader. Specifically, I think it’s important for people to elarn more about his record in New York City.”

End interview, back to just me talking.

Well, the Rudy campaign got an "INCOMING!" louder than most on the abortion issue this week. If he doesn't answer questions concisely and effectively on the issue tonight, there's no excuse for it. I understand that Rudy's position is a bit nuanced, and may not fit into a soundbite, but I felt like I understood it fine until the last debate. He lost some ground with me because I felt like he went from a straightforward pro-choice guy who'd appoint good judges to a kind of pro-choice sorta abortion hater who didn't mention judges a lot. And, I'm someone who's inclined to like Rudy, as I've said many times before.

I'm more passionate about security and fiscal issues, but I don't want to feel like a candidate is hemming, hawing, or playing me on the social issues, either. So, we'll see what happens tonight. I'd like to see a little bit more of funny Rudy tonight (and funny McCain, for that matter). There will necessarily be questions about the Fort Dix Six, I would imagine, and the missing soldiers in Iraq, so those things will play in his favor.

My impression has always been, just from living in North Carolina, which has a similar electorate, that Southern evangelicals are much more likely to have a very special place in their hearts for Rudy than politicos predict, and that that special place is more powerful than it's given credit for. Church-going Southerners are pro-life voters who pray tenderly for the souls of aborted babies, but they're also responsible moms and dads who respect a tough streak in a pugilistic politician, as long as he's punching Islamic terrorists.

It remains to be seen whether continued talk about the abortion issue will make that affection fade, but I haven't noticed a lot of fading among my friends back home who are paying attention to the race in an average-voter way (as opposed to the Internet-weirdo-junkie way). Anecdotal, but for what it's worth...