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Sitting Atop an Unstable Race


Rudy Giuliani addresses the Republican Jewish Coalition (Getty)

Here is a headline you never thought you'd read: "Giuliani Generates Most 'Enthusiastic' Support From Republicans."

Those words are carried atop a report about a new Gallup Poll that shows Giuliani continuing to lead the Republican field nationally. Superficially, the poll represents more good news for the former New York mayor, but it could almost as easily be interpreted as indicative of the fundamental instability in the Republican race.

Start with the good news for Giuliani. He leads with 32 percent and has a double-digit advantage over Fred Thompson, who runs second at 18 percent. John McCain runs third at 14 percent and Mitt Romney is fourth at 10 percent.

When Republicans were asked about possible nominees and whether they would vote for that person enthusiastically or primarily just to vote against the Democratic nominee, Giuliani comes out on top. Fifty-one percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they would vote enthusiastically for Giuliani.

Next was McCain at 38 percent, followed by Thompson at 37 percent. Romney ran a distant fourth. Just a quarter of Republicans said they would support him enthusiastically if he were the nominee, while 38 percent said they would vote for him mainly as a vote against the Democrats. Thirty percent either said they would stay home if Romney were the nominee or had no opinion about their level of enthusiasm for him.

All of this suggests Giuliani is now the national front-runner for the Republican nomination. Certainly his rivals have begun to treat him as such. Last week's debate in Dearborn, Mich., saw Romney go after Giuliani over his conservative credentials. Last night, Thompson challenged Giuliani in the mayor's backyard, arguing that he and not Giuliani is the true conservative in the race.

The question is whether Giuliani is a secure frontrunner, or a frontrunner in any sense other than national polls, which can be unreliable indicators at this point in the race. The Gallup poll highlights one potential problem. The longer the campaign has gone on, the less favorably the public sees Giuliani.

His current favorable rating among all Americans is at 49 percent, down from 62 percent in May. He's at 66 percent among Republicans, but has dropped 15 points since May. He's also dropped 15 points among Democrats.

Giuliani's favorable ratings are still higher than those of other Republicans -- considerably higher than either Romney's or Thompson's. But can he avoid further deterioration as the Republican campaign intensifies? His advisers believe that is possible but only because they see potential risk for everyone in a multi-candidate battle in which attacks are flying in different directions.

The other red flag is the contrast between Giuliani's national numbers and his standing in the earliest states. Giuliani hopes to finesse Iowa, where he now runs behind Romney and Thompson But can the person described as the national frontrunner for the GOP nomination afford a weak third-place or fourth-place finish in Iowa? Can the national frontrunner then afford a loss in New Hampshire a few days later?

Giuliani advisers believe the answer is yes to both. They see Iowa as somewhat diminished this year, in part because there is so much attention there on the Democratic race. In New Hampshire, they have long argued that a solid second behind Romney will be enough to keep Giuliani moving forward toward the later states that he is building his nomination hopes around.

But others, in rival campaigns, believe Giuliani must win New Hampshire if he does poorly in Iowa. Although he will claim it is a state better suited to Romney because of proximity to Massachusetts, or McCain by virtue of his 2000 victory there, Giuliani should know that candidates who built their appeal on electability in a general election are expected to demonstrate that strength in the primaries.

Giuliani campaign manager Mike DuHaime said in an email message Tuesday that the Gallup findings on enthusiasm show the former mayor's potential to rally a demoralized party.

"In an environment that seems to favor Democrats in 2008, the party deserves a candidate that can unite and energize the entire party," he said. "These numbers suggest Rudy is the candidate best positioned to keep red states red and go on offense in traditionally Democrat states."

The Giuliani team believes that as long as Republicans are persuaded that Giuliani will be a strong general election candidate, they will forgive his social liberalism and embrace him as the party's best hope to win in 2008. The national polls suggest that to be the case -- but the nomination battle still must go through the states.

A strategist in a rival campaign said the contrast between Giuliani's national numbers and his standing in early states hints at a possible train wreck if the former mayor stumbles badly early. But the same strategist acknowledged that the path to the nomination for Giuliani is no less implausible than it is for the other leading candidates.

So for now, the headline stands: Republicans are expressing enthusiasm for the candidate who nine months ago looked implausible as the person to lead a conservative party. Giuliani should enjoy the acclaim -- and then run his campaign as if he is behind in most of the early states. Which is exactly where he is.

--Dan Balz

By Post Editor  |  October 16, 2007; 1:35 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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