By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Rudy Giuliani is going before a big meeting of conservatives this weekend with a remarkable lead in the GOP race; according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, he's ahead of Sen. John McCain 44-21. That raises a question: How could a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control ex-mayor from New York be doing so well with Republicans?
The short answer is "September 11," but for reasons that go beyond the obvious, which is the sense that Giuliani rallied a stricken city, spoke in bold language about defeating the new enemy and actually was at personal risk in those first moments.
But 9/11 did something else -- it elevated Giuliani far above the level of a big-city mayor.
Usually, "mayor" is way too small a job to give someone presidential credentials -- it's where you fill the potholes in the streets, pick up the garbage. What the attacks of September 11, 2001, did was to give Giuliani, rightly or not, a much bigger stature. He was the official who "stood up to al Qaeda" and became a major American figure in the global battle against the enemy who'd so savagely attacked the United States. That made him much more than a big city mayor.
Moreover, the attacks radically changed the picture of New York -- the biggest Democratic city in the nation, and one not usually admired by core Republicans. Two things have changed about New York. First, 9/11 made New York much more "American." That's where the enemy attacked; that's where the president and the mayor stood with firefighters and American flag to promise payback. (And that's where Republicans held their national convention in 2004 -- the first time in the party's history they had come to that city.)
The second factor -- and this is an argument Giuliani hasn't made much, but I'm guessing he will -- is that New York was where a Republican mayor, using conservative ideas on crime, taxes and welfare, turned around the city that was ground zero of modern liberalism. For whatever reason, New York is a much safer, cleaner, healthier city than it was a decade and a half ago, and Giuliani is likely to say, "I don't just talk about ideas like senators. I made them work."
But what about the fact that he is pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control? Some polls have suggested that when Republican voters learn about these stands, his support drops dramatically. (We've already seen one rival -- Mitt Romney --pointing those stands out with enthusiasm.)
It may still be a disabling political problem. But remember, Giuliani has spent years endorsing more conservative Republicans in primaries -- Bob Smith in New Hampshire, Bill Simon in California in 2002 and Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, in Georgia in 2006. None of them won; but those endorsements mean that Giuliani has "markers" (that's New York street lingo for "you owe me one") with Republicans.
Does that mean a sense of leadership on terror -- and achievement in the face of a Bush administration that has not won high marks on competence in Iraq or with Katrina -- will trump the social issues?
That's the $640,000 question (adjusted for inflation). I don't take these ludicrously early poll numbers very seriously, but I think it's clear that Giuliani is a more formidable contender than many would have thought a year ago, and when you look at the probability of very early primaries in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and California, where moderate Republicans do relatively well, you can't simply assume that when primary voters learn of his stand on social issues, he'll be dead.
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