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So Far Rudy's Run Going According to Script

By Tom Bevan

Of all the candidates in the Republican field, no one has a right to be happier with the way things have worked out thus far than Rudy Giuliani. Here's a quick look at where things stand:

- After nine months of campaigning, Giuliani remains atop the national polls (to the astonishment of many pundits); he has closed the gap with Mitt Romney to under 4 points in New Hampshire; and he is leading the field in South Carolina and Florida.

- Yesterday Giuliani reported raising $11 million in Q3, putting him atop the Republican money race for the second consecutive quarter. Furthermore, Giuliani has $16 million cash on hand - including more than $11 million available for the primary - which is more than $2 million more than what his nearest competitor has in the bank.

Beyond those numbers, however, recent developments may have made the last month Giuliani's best yet. First, Fred Thompson's performance has been decidedly average since entering the race in early September.

Not only has Thompson failed to set the base on fire but, more importantly, he has generated a recent round of squabbling among religious conservative leaders as to his acceptability. This has prevented Thompson from consolidating the evangelical vote - at least so far.

The result is almost exactly what Rudy would have hoped for if he had drawn up a best case scenario a month ago: Thompson is running well enough to draw votes from others in the race - keeping the social conservative vote split and hurting Romney, Rudy's other major threat - but not running so well as to have grasped the mantle of the sole conservative option to Giuliani.

The other factor that is working in Giuliani's favor - and one that has gone nearly unnoticed - is the media-fueled strengthening of Hillary Clinton's grip on the Democratic nomination.

One of Giuliani's strongest selling points to conservative voters who may be at odds with him on social issues is the promise that he can run the strongest general election campaign of any Republican in the field. Giuliani continually harps on the fact that he scrambles the electoral map, putting states into play that no other Republican can.

But Giuliani's "electability" argument is enhanced considerably when Republicans envision - as most already do - Clinton winning the Democratic nomination. Case in point: in the NBC/WSJ poll released this week Giuliani holds a 7-point lead over Thompson (30% to 23%) among Republican voters. However, when those same Republican voters were asked which candidate had "the best chance of beating Hillary Clinton in the general election," Giuliani's lead over Thompson balloons to 31 points, 47% to 16%.

So long as Clinton rides high and appears to be the "inevitable" nominee of her party, she will buoy Rudy's chances of winning the GOP nomination precisely because a square-off with Hillary, in particular, brings out all the qualities Republican voters find most attractive in Rudy: he's a tough guy, a fighter, and a reliable partisan on the most important issues of the day.

Nowhere was this displayed more fully than when Rudy jumped at the opportunity to mix it up with MoveOn.org, the New York Times, and Hillary Clinton over the "General Betray Us" ad controversy. And when the counter attacks came from MoveOn, Rudy turned them into a badge of honor, reinforcing the very things Republicans like most about him.

Clearly, the first nine months of the campaign are a prelude to the real deal, which has only just gotten underway and becomes more real with each passing week. Many, if not all of the dynamics I've written about today could and perhaps will change before the first vote is cast. But while other candidates have had their struggles, Rudy has confounded the conventional wisdom with a surprisingly smooth ride that has gone more or less according to script. Whether or not there's a happy end to Rudy's story remains to be seen.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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