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Guns Provide Opening for Giuliani Rivals

By Reid Wilson

For as long as he has contemplated a run for president, Rudy Giuliani has been dogged by the sneaking suspicion many political players and observers hold: That because of his positions on certain issues, he just can't win a Republican primary. During Giuliani's tenure as mayor in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans, some estimate by as much as fifteen to one, he had to tack left on several issues, including abortion rights, gay rights and gun control. Now, as he faces a GOP primary electorate far more conservative than those who voted for him in New York, those positions are coming back to haunt him.

But Giuliani, by most measures, is the clear national front-runner. Rival campaigns are lining up their attack ads, preparing to go after the mayor and let GOP voters know of his past record. Abortion rights and gay rights are not popular issues among Republicans. Many, though, believe it will be the gun issue that resonates most with primary voters, and Giuliani's past support for gun control could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

After the 1994 elections, in which the National Rifle Association spent millions to knock off numerous Democratic incumbents, few politicians wanted to talk about gun control. Giuliani, on the other hand, took one of the toughest pro-gun control lines in the country. Giuliani's efforts to reduce crime in New York, which he claims as his major success, included filing a federal suit against 25 gun manufacturers in 2000, which sought to require background checks and limit advertising, and supporting the assault weapons ban.

His relationship with gun advocates has been rocky, to say the least. "The NRA, for some reason, I think goes way overboard," he said in a 1995 interview with PBS's Charlie Rose. Gun advocates haven't forgotten Giuliani's past: When the assault weapons ban passed, Giuliani traveled to Washington to stand with President Bill Clinton as he signed the bill. "He allowed himself to be the single bipartisan potted plan in the Rose Garden," said Gun Owners of America head Larry Pratt.

Still, at an NRA forum last week for presidential candidates, Giuliani's attitude had changed. "There are many more things that we have in common," he told Second Amendment activists. Borrowing a phrase from Ronald Reagan, the mayor argued that someone who agrees with you 80% of the time is 80% your friend, not 20% your enemy. His hope that NRA backers won't turn their fire on him rests on the notion that they recognize this, as well.

Many in the Second Amendment community were unconvinced by his appearance at the forum. "There's nothing wrong with saying you were wrong," said Pratt. But "we haven't heard any recanting on [Giuliani's] part."

The failure to mend fences could hurt Giulaini. Starting in New Hampshire, a state whose "Live Free or Die" motto advertises its libertarian tendencies, the Republican primary calendar will run through states where voters feel particularly strongly about gun rights. Michigan, South Carolina and Florida all follow in rapid succession, and in all three states gun activists play a strong role in party politics. "Any slight thing that [gun owners] see as possibly an imposition on gun rights, my God, they'll react," said Francis Marion University Professor and former GOP consultant Neal Thigpen.

Giuliani has time to rebuild relationships, though, as many voters remain unaware of his position. "Until the NRA and the Gun Owners get engaged, it'll be a back-burner issue," said one GOP strategist. "If the NRA decides to get really actively engaged, it's going to become a big problem." If Giuliani can convince gun advocates that he's not their enemy, his path to the nomination would be much smoother.

To not appear as a threat, Giuliani has taken to promoting his support for strict constructionist judges. With the backing of former Solicitor General Ted Olson, former federal judge nominee Miguel Estrada and Steven Calabresi, founder of the influential Federalist Society, judicial appointees are a Giuliani strong suit. At the NRA forum, he repeatedly promised to appoint judges who rule "based on what [the Constitution] means, not based on somebody's social agenda."

But other campaigns and some Second Amendment advocates have no intention of letting Giuliani off the hook. While Giuliani is polling strongly in Florida and South Carolina, the strategist said, "the question is, what happens when the attack ads come out?"

Those attack ads are all but assured to run in the months leading up to the first nominating contests. "A lot of [Giuliani's] social issue problems aren't known by base voters yet. I submit that they will be told about them," said Clemson pollster David Woodard, also a former Republican strategist.

If rival campaigns don't use the issue in ads, gun advocates will likely do it for them. "There will be a tendency to let folks know he wants to take their ownership away," said Pratt.

That perception is one Giuliani will have to fight. Answering for his record on gay rights and abortion rights, Giuliani has argued that the issue is one for the states, not for the federal government, to decide.

He has attempted to make the same argument about guns - that what was necessary in New York City, to reduce crime, may not be necessary in other states. That argument has drawn fire, notably from former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who said at the NRA forum it was "absurd, laughable, that we would have geographic boundaries on the tenets of the Second Amendment."

If Giuliani is able to mollify his critics in the gun rights community, he can remain the leader in the Republican primary. If he doesn't make amends, Giuliani may run into more trouble than he can handle. "He's going to find people don't get a big bang out of his positions," Pratt said.

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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