Behind Giuliani's Pro-Choice Gamble

  • Share
  • Read Later
Lisa Hornak / Reuters

Republican Presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani

Rudy Giuliani's decision to be more forthright about his pro-choice stance on abortion may be the boldest step of the Presidential campaign so far. And while it's certainly a gamble, because it will likely inflame the social-issue conservatives who form a key minority in the Republican party, it's far from reckless. On the contrary, it is the first tangible sign that a candidate has done some hard thinking about the radically changed nature of this year's primary schedule and, in Giuliani's case, decided that the reign of social conservatives is coming to an end.

The rush by big states to hold early primaries appears to favor front-runners with high name recognition, like Giuliani. At the same time, it diminishes the influence that small states have traditionally had on the nominating process — most of all, perhaps, the influence of the Iowa caucuses, where very small groups of highly motivated caucus-goers have had more impact, per capita, than any voters in the country.

Because the social conservative minority in Iowa has been very effective at getting its voters to attend caucuses, this group has had a disproportionate influence on Republican campaigns. Never was this clearer than in 1988, when just a few thousand voters vaulted Rev. Pat Robertson out of the pack, briefly rattling the establishment campaigns of George Bush Sr. and Bob Dole. Robertson then converted the energy of that boomlet into the highly influential Christian Coalition of the 1990s, which did so much to shape contemporary Republican politics.

Giuliani's move is a clear bet that social conservatives' power in the nominating process will be broken bv Tsunami Tuesday — the Feb. 5 super-primary featuring such mass-market states as New York, California and New Jersey. "He understands that there are a lot of Republicans out there who are sick of everyone kowtowing to the single-issue extremists," said one veteran Republican observer in Washington. "He's breaking from the pack."

Advisers to Giuliani's leading opponents, John McCain and Mitt Romney, say the influence of the big states is overrated; that with so many candidates chasing votes in so many places, the influence of the first states will actually be magnified, not diminished. And they believe that the Republican party is, at its core, pro-life — no matter how many "big tent" speeches delegates have endured at recent G.O.P. conventions.

It's true that Giuliani's strategists would have preferred to see the day of this gamble delayed. But Rudy's tongue-tied attempt to nuance his views in the first Republican candidates' debate last week brought the issue to a head. Giuliani is said to believe that his straight talk on a controversial issue will underline his reputation as a forthright leader. After all, the religious conservatives have never been comfortable with the thrice-married, gay-tolerant former mayor of New York City. In that respect, he is calculating he had a lot to gain from a display of backbone and relatively little to lose.

Giuliani's strategic move is a textbook case of what economists and political scientists call "spatial positioning." It works like this: Picture a football stadium with a central entrance and grandstands stretching to the left and right. Two snack vendors set up shop next to each other at the entrance, where all the potential customers must pass. But suppose one of them moves to the right a little way to try to escape competition. The best strategy for the other vendor is to follow close behind, setting up just to the left of the first. That way, he gets some of the customers on the right-hand side of the stands, plus all the customers coming from the left.

Giuliani is trying to be that savvy second vendor — allowing his competitors to cluster on the right while he stakes out a position slightly closer to the middle. Thanks to the early primary schedule he is banking on, we'll know soon enough if the gamble pays off.