Race to the Right

The three leading Republican presidential contenders are all moving to the right.

Polls show three candidates leading the Republican field: Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. All three have demonstrated blue-state appeal and have shown they know how to get votes from Democrats and moderates. In a general election, that's valuable. But first someone has to win the Republican nomination. And that may entail some flip-flopping.

"Yeah, I'm running," Giuliani said casually to CNN's Larry King last week. The former New York City mayor is not just getting in, he's taking off. In the January Gallup poll for USA Today, Giuliani and McCain were running neck and neck among Republicans nationwide (Giuliani had 31 percent support to McCain's 27 percent). The February Gallup/USA Today poll shows Giuliani with a sizable lead—40 percent to McCain's 24 percent.

What's driving support for Giuliani? Much of the nation views him as a strong, decisive leader because of his response to 9/11. That's the image that President Bush once had. In the most recent Gallup/USA Today poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans said that Giuliani would make a good president. And 9/11 was the main reason they felt that way.

McCain is becoming more identified with a different Bush image: steadfast support of the war in Iraq. Of the troop buildup, the senator from Arizona said, "I am sticking with the president in this respect. This is our last chance. The consequences of failure are catastrophic."

For Republican voters, the question is what image they want to present to the nation in next year's presidential election: the Bush of 9/11 who won re-election in 2004, or the Bush of the Iraq war who was, in effect, defeated in 2006?

Giuliani was twice elected mayor of New York City, the capital of blue-state America, as a supporter of abortion rights, gay rights, and gun control. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, has said, "I think Giuliani is unacceptable from the outset." So why are so many conservatives supporting him? "They see Giuliani as this person who did a spectacular job in 9/11 and who did a good job as mayor of New York," said Terry Jeffrey, editor-at-large of Human Events. "They don't know where he stands on abortion and marriage."

Giuliani will never be a favorite of social conservatives, but he is trying to make himself "not unacceptable" to the Right. On abortion, he told King: "I am pro-choice, but I am also against abortion." Giuliani also promised, "I would appoint judges to the [Supreme] Court that were strict constructionists." On same-sex marriage: "I believe that marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman, and that the way to handle this ... is to have something like domestic partnership, which I support." On gun control: "I also understand the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms.... It's one thing for New York; it's something different for Texas."

Romney announced his candidacy from the blue state Michigan, where his father was governor. The younger Romney was governor of Massachusetts, an even bluer state. Recently, letters and debate clips have surfaced showing that Romney supported gay rights and abortion rights in 1994, when he was challenging Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "A lot of things coming out about him are troubling," Perkins said. Romney's response? I have seen the light. "On abortion, I wasn't always a Ronald Reagan conservative," Romney acknowledged, adding, "Neither was Ronald Reagan."

Arizona is not a blue state, but in 2000, McCain won blue-state primaries in New Hampshire and Michigan. During the course of that campaign, he denounced televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance." As a critic of the Bush administration on tax cuts, embryonic-stem-cell research, and torture, McCain established strong crossover appeal to Democrats and independents. Some conservatives, such as James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, won't forgive him. "I pray that we won't get stuck with him," Dobson has said.

McCain's response? He delivered the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University. He's hired a number of former Bush campaign staffers. And he's with Bush on the biggest issue of all, Iraq.

It's not uncommon to see candidates move to the right in seeking the Republican nomination. But to have the three leaders of the pack do it at the same time—that is unusual.