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Giuliani vs. McCain

Michael Kinsley's column today gets into the great irony of the (potential) Giuliani vs. McCain battle in the GOP primaries in 2008: McCain agrees with the Religious Right on most things, but they hate him. Giuliani disagrees with the Religious Right on most things, but they (at least for now) love him.

This is borne out by polling. To take just one example, a November 2004 Gallup poll found that, in a field of Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Jeb Bush, Giuliani came out on top with 47 percent of the vote from all Republicans. He got 47 percent from the subset of conservative Republicans. Meanwhile, McCain got only 23 percent of the subset of conservative Republicans (26 percent from all Republicans).

Now, those numbers, as mentioned, are from 2004. But things don't seem to have changed very much in the interim. A Gallup analysis (subscription only) from February 16, 2006, has this to say about support for Giuliani vs. McCain:

Who is supporting Giuliani vs. McCain?

There are some important ideological distinctions among the potential GOP candidates. Giuliani is known as a conservative on crime and national security, but supports abortion and gay rights. McCain has a reputation for being a "moderate" but has a mostly conservative voting record, particularly on economic and social issues. Other candidates are even further to the political right.

Given these differences, it is interesting to focus on candidate preferences according to Republicans' personal ideology.

Gallup finds some slight differences in the vote choice of "conservative" and "moderate" Republicans. Giuliani leads McCain by a 31%-to-26% margin among self-described Republican conservatives. By contrast, McCain has a slight edge over Giuliani among "moderate" Republicans, 38% to 33%. Neither of these leads is statistically significant given the margin of error associated with the small sample sizes of these subgroups.

Three candidates with reputations as solid conservatives -- Virginia Sen. George Allen, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback -- all receive minor levels of support from conservative and moderate Republicans, alike.

So Giuliani is the candidate of conservatives, and McCain is the candidate of moderates? Yes, this is definitely off.

At least for the Republican primary, the question seems to be this: What will win out among conservative primary voters? Emotion (they like Giuliani) or cold, hard calculation (they can't stand McCain, but he has the right positions)?

Of course, there could be some other candidate to come and swoop in and grab the conservative vote. But no one's gotten to it yet. And, amazingly, Rudy seems to have a pretty decent chance of locking that vote down early -- if he plays his cards right and develops the right policy platform.

McCain might be making nice with Falwell, but Rudy's with Ralph.

This is still a wide-open race, the most wide-open Republican primary since 1964 -- that's how conservative movement historian Lee Edwards pegged it when I interviewed him for my book. Things are going to get really, really interesting.