Rudy and Romney: Ready to Rumble

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(l. to r.): Dima Gavrysh / AP; J. Emilio Flores / Getty

Republican Presidential Candidates Mitt Romney (left) and Rudy Giuliani

With the books now closed on the 3rd quarter race for campaign cash, it is not too early to forsee an arc of the unfolding race for the Republican nomination.

The next phase is shaping up, among other things, as a Giuliani vs. Romney cage fight. Atop the national polls and ahead in fund-raising, Giuliani is proving steadier and more resilient than many GOP veterans expected. While Giuliani raised $10 million and has $16 million on hand, Romney's quiet self-subsidy of more than $8 million means that he too will have the money for the main event of the Republican race this fall and winter: the head to head bash-a-thon in which the two men accuse the other on the stump and in paid advertising of being soft on abortion, gay marriage, immigration, stem cells, taxes and spending, and the war on terror.

They were battling on those fronts this week. Giuliani's folks have been dropping hints that Romney is weak on fiscal discipline, in part to strengthen their position in tax-obsessed New Hampshire. Romney, still ahead but slipping in the Granite state over the summer, has fired back with a radio ad noting that he alone has signed the no new taxes pledge. "I'm proud to be the only major candidate for President to sign the tax pledge," he says, "The others have not." Romney goes on in the ad to make another promise: he vows not merely to hold the line against new taxes but "roll back" those already in law.

These are just warm-up rounds, tame compared with what's most likely in store. Who will emerge strongest after the rubble has settled? No one knows, of course, but one instinct tells me that Rudy will have lost less blood when it's all said and done, based on his experience in the mud pit of New York City politics. Giuliani has another card to play, too: he will be arguing, in effect, "I'm not perfect, but I'll keep you safer."

None of this would be possible if evangelical voters — and their leaders — were behaving as they have in the past, lining up behind a single conservative. Instead, various polls, including the Washington Post poll released this week, show that it is Giuliani who leads his GOP rivals even among regular church attendees. TIME noted in a story this week that 66% of white evangelical protestants, in a Pew Research study, describe terror and security as "very important," compared with 56% for social issues.

In a cycle where Republicans don't have much advantage or traction (or agreement) on other issues, security may be all that is left to unite them.