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Strange Bedfellows 

Rudy Giuliani is pro-choice, pro-gay rights and pro-gun control. So why are bedrock conservatives like U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Congressman Charles Boustany endorsing him for president -- and will the state's GOP base stand for it?

Rudy Giuliani is the tough guy who took on a surprise terrorist attack and guided New York City through the trauma and chaos of 9/11. He faced off against The Mob in the Big Apple as U.S. attorney, eventually imprisoning three of the city's four major bosses. As mayor, Giuliani found a way to boot all the smut merchants from Times Square and slash the crime rate. He's Eliot Ness reincarnated, John Wayne in a Brooks Brothers suit. It's no wonder the Republican Party has taken a shine to him as one of the GOP front-runners for president. What's not to like?

For hard-line conservatives, plenty, which is why some are questioning Giuliani's bona fides. He's sideways on some key Republican issues -- abortion, gay rights and gun control -- and certainly doesn't fit into the evangelical formula that President Bush and political consultant Karl Rove have used so relentlessly over the past eight years. Despite those obstacles, Giuliani currently leads his nearest GOP challenger, U.S. Sen. John McCain, by a margin of 34 percent to 18 percent in the latest CNN poll. More recently, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg all-GOP poll, released last week, showed McCain dropping to third, with Giuliani holding solid at 29 percent. Fred Thompson, an actor and former senator not officially in the race, came up second with 15 percent, three points ahead of McCain.

In Louisiana, two of the state's top conservative voices -- Congressman Charles Boustany of Lafayette and U.S. Sen. David Vitter of Metairie -- have officially endorsed Giuliani, with caveats that they support the man but not necessarily his message. And a lot of Cajun Catholics in the southern part of the state and fundamentalists farther north aren't happy with the Republican duo. Why would Vitter, Giuliani's campaign chairman for the southern states, take such a leap? Do they figure that the payoff is worth the gamble? To say the least, they're staking their reputations on a maverick.

During the past two federal election cycles, Louisiana's GOP congressional delegation has been a one-horse bunch. They were all loyal to George Bush, backing the president wholeheartedly and without equivocation. This year, it's a different story. There is no vice president in the competition, no heir apparent and no Bush family member in sight.

Congressmen Jim McCrery of Shreveport and Rodney Alexander of Quitman have endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon who recently cleared $23 million in the latest election cycle -- compared to Giuliani's $15 million. Richard Baker of Baton Rouge hasn't weighed in yet, and Bobby Jindal of Kenner, a leading candidate for governor, may stay away from the race altogether.

The fact that pols are already lining up behind presidential candidates a year before Louisiana's primary and 19 months before the election isn't unusual, given the political climate. The media have swallowed whole the hype surrounding early endorsements, prompting many lawmakers to hitch their wagons sooner rather than later. There's also the potential windfall from getting in early and securing a spot at the table during policy development. Still, getting hitched to a presidential candidate this early is a risk, especially if the candidate falters later on.

Boustany and Vitter are now holding that double-edged sword. There's still a developing field of Republican candidates competing for money and headlines, and one of the frontrunners could easily be gone by year's end -- just in time for those who endorsed early to feel the political equivalent of buyer's remorse. There is no shortage of players to watch: war hero and struggling candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Hollywood actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Congressmen Ron Paul of Texas and Tom Tancredo of Colorado. None of them faces the challenges on social issues that Giuliani does in the South.

The lack of a strong Southern persona among the current contenders may have spawned the Giuliani-Vitter pairing, says Jason Hebert, a political consultant who managed and helped win the Louisiana and Colorado campaigns for President Bush in 2004. While Vitter's choice seems to run against the grain of the senator's position on social issues, it also reflects Giuliani's early strength.

"I'm sure they had their inside reasons, but right now it's really all about who can win," Hebert says. "Giuliani will be a serious contender in the final race, has a great fundraising base and looks amazing in all the polls. There's just no obvious choice and you're seeing the residual of that."

Giuliani's poll numbers have been absurdly high against a packed GOP field, winning practically every survey and poll to date and leading his competitors by as much as 12 points. But being an early frontrunner carries a hefty price tag: He will soon come under intense scrutiny by the media as well as voters in the early caucus and primary state of Iowa and South Carolina. And, eventually, Louisiana.

The Giuliani camp could have repackaged their candidate for easier conservative consumption, but it chose instead to offer him up raw. What you see is what you get, and America's mayor isn't shying away from his previous stances, says Elliott Bundy, Giuliani's press secretary for the southern states. Even on the dividing issue of abortion, Giuliani is sticking to his old ways.

Just last week, he confirmed in a CNN interview that he supports public funding for abortions. "He is personally opposed to abortion, but ultimately believes a choice should exist," Bundy says.

Giuliani's entire issues sheet is like kryptonite to die-hard conservatives and contrasts greatly with the values touted by Vitter. While serving New York, Giuliani spoke in favor of trigger locks, firearm training and a ban on some assault weapons. But lately, he's been deferring most questions on the subject to "states' rights" and voicing support for the Second Amendment.

While opposed to gay marriage, he supports domestic partnerships that "provide stability for committed partners in important legal and personal matters," according to his Web site. "(Giuliani) wants to be sure there's an agreement where people can't be discriminated against," Bundy says.

And now that he's a presidential candidate, Giuliani's private life is out there, flapping in the wind. He has been married three times; his first wife was his second cousin once removed. A 1997 Vanity Fair investigative story claimed Giuliani had a relationship with his communications director in the mayor's office. He also grabbed headlines for issuing a press release about his separation from second wife Donna Hanover before informing her. Before his divorce from Hanover was final, Giuliani paraded with his mistress, Judith Nathan, in the St. Patrick's Day parade. Nathan -- his current wife -- has also been married three times.

Giuliani's also fending off minor but nonetheless irritating questions about cross-dressing at a New York media roast. It's enough of a distraction that New Republic magazine published one of the photos of Giuliani in rouge lipstick and a blonde wig with the headline, "But Will it Play in Peoria?"

When Giuliani's dirty laundry starts getting a fresh airing below the Mason-Dixon line, voters probably won't like what they see -- and that negativity could rub off on Boustany and Vitter, says Florida pollster and political consultant Jim Kitchens.

"I personally think they are making an early tactical and strategic political error on both of their parts," he says. "Giuliani has been gaining support, but what's interesting is there are still a lot of people that don't know the details about him. His social issues are not going to play well in the Deep South."

The conservative base in Louisiana will not budge on the issues, says Rev. Gene Mills, executive director of Louisiana Family Forum, an epicenter for Christian public policy work. "I'm disappointed and outraged," he says. "Boustany and Vitter ran on a pro-life platform with traditional values and built a constituency based on those beliefs. Rudy hasn't stood on those platforms. [The endorsement] was premature and ill advised. The whole race could implode at any time."

That's especially dangerous for Boustany, whose Acadiana swing district traditionally doesn't share the same social priorities as Giuliani. Vitter caters to the same conservative demographic, but he is buffered by a statewide voter that includes suburban moderates.

So what's in it for them? For starters, a Giuliani victory would give them a close relationship with the White House and possible leadership roles in Congress and the Senate. Then there are Cabinet positions, ambassadorships, party gigs -- the list goes on.

Vitter stands to gain the most. While it sounds a bit lofty, there's increased chatter that he'd be a possible vice presidential candidate on a Giuliani ticket.

"I don't think it's completely ridiculous to consider that," Kitchens says. "You have a northern mayor who has municipal experience, so you need a balance from someone who has been in Washington, is from the South and could offer solid conservative credentials."

Hebert doesn't think Louisiana voters are going to revolt against Giuliani. The former mayor has some compelling stories to tell, including defeating prostate cancer and staring down 9/11. Louisiana, of all states, should appreciate strong leadership in a time of crisis. Is it possible that Giuliani's abortion, gun control and gay rights stances could be ignored by Louisiana voters?

"You have to keep an eye on the polls," Hebert says. "Other than Iraq, what other issues are voters going to be sticklers about? What is going to be the driving force behind voters' choices this year?"

Vitter and Boustany declined interview requests regarding their endorsements, meetings with Giuliani or possible leadership roles. They also declined to answer whether Giuliani would champion any specific Louisiana issues such as coastal restoration, oil and gas or commercial fishing. The offices of both men have been bombarded with emails and phone calls from constituents, and Boustany and Vitter are facing pointed questions on their Giuliani endorsements during public gatherings.

Mills, who says he had personal conversations with Boustany and Vitter about their decisions, says neither indicated that the Giuliani campaign would back down or tone down on social issues. However, they did convey that Giuliani would appoint "strict" judges -- the only ace he has with the evangelicals -- and he would be strong on the war on terror. "As far as policy, that's inadequate," Mills says.

Vitter did make one recent statement: "Rudy has stated clearly to me and to the world that he'll appoint strict constructionist judges who will apply the law as written and not legislate from the bench."

In a press release, Boustany was careful to point out the "most important issues" that Giuliani will campaign on: "As a Republican and a conservative, I know Rudy Giuliani is the best choice to be the next president. On the most important issues of ensuring our national security and protecting our families, keeping taxes low and making government more efficient, Mayor Giuliani's record speaks for itself and his leadership is exactly what we need in the White House."

Politically, it could be a major coup for Vitter and Boustany if Giuliani survives the primaries and earns the Republican nomination. It's all about survival right now, says Washington, D.C., political consultant Brent Littlefield. "They see Rudy being staged to win and they want their involvement to be prominent so they get in early," he says. "There was some aggressive recruiting going on and we probably haven't seen the last of it."

On the flip side, their gamble of mixing ideologies could prove disastrous, especially if voters become polarized along ideological lines. While the elephant is known for its storied memory, Vitter and Boustany are hoping Louisiana Republicans won't dwell on Giuliani's positions on social issues -- particularly if the Rudy train jumps off the track. For some hard-liners, that's asking too much, however.

"There are social conservatives that will never forget this", Mills says.

Ultimately, it's a question of whether the hard-liners outnumber the moderates.

click to enlarge Rudy Guiliani
  • Rudy Guiliani
click to enlarge U.S. Senator David Vitter
  • U.S. Senator David Vitter
click to enlarge Congressman Charles Boustany
  • Congressman Charles Boustany
click to enlarge Vitter (right) joins Giuliani's entourage during a visit to New - Orleans last year. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Vitter (right) joins Giuliani's entourage during a visit to New Orleans last year.
click to enlarge cover_story-15269.jpeg
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