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Southern exposure

Campaign 2008 | It's a long way to the primary, but Giuliani gained traction in South Carolina debate

Issue: "Jerry Falwell," May 26, 2007

No Republican has ever won the GOP presidential nomination without first winning the South Carolina primary. So how tough would it be to capture the nomination without the support of evangelicals in South Carolina? Neal Thigpen, a political science professor at Francis Marion University near Florence, S.C., recently told Cox News it would be "as tough as chewing on a nickel steak."

Rudy Giuliani has already taken the first bite. At a news conference last month at South Carolina's Statehouse, the Republican candidate defended his approval of using public money for abortions, and dismissed concerns that he might lose votes over his pro-abortion views: "If that's the most important thing, then I'm comfortable with the fact that you won't vote for me."

It's unclear how many conservatives will oblige. But for now, South Carolina, which holds one of the first primaries next year, appears comfortable with Giuliani: The former New York City mayor is neck-and-neck with Sen. John McCain in state polls. He also prevailed over the field of 10 candidates in the first GOP presidential debate in the South at the University of South Carolina on May 15.

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It certainly wasn't social issues that boosted Giuliani in the South Carolina debate. Instead, the 9/11 hero dominated on national security issues and produced the most electric moment of the evening when fellow candidate Rep. Ron Paul suggested that previous U.S. involvement in the Middle East had provoked the 9/11 attacks.

Giuliani pounced on Paul's remarks: "I don't think I've ever heard that before, and I have heard some pretty absurd explanations." He sternly demanded that Paul retract his comments. The congressman refused, but Giuliani's visceral moment drew the loudest applause line of the evening, and high marks after the debate.

But if Giuliani was tough on security, he was tepid on social issues. When journalist Chris Wallace asked if Giuliani's support for abortion and civil unions was conservative, he avoided the question and talked about the importance of Republicans avoiding defeat.

When Wallace pressed for an answer, Giuliani admitted: "I support a woman's right to choose." He quickly added that the government should have a limited role in people's lives and that politicians ought to focus on reducing abortions instead of making them illegal.

It was here that lesser-known candidates gained traction. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas, responded to Giuliani: "If something is morally wrong, let's oppose it." Sen. Sam Brownback also staunchly defended pro-life positions.

Other so-called second-tier candidates grabbed attention on other issues as well. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) drew applause for his comments on immigration, saying we should tell immigrants who want to come to America to "knock on the front door because the back door is closed."

Meanwhile, frontrunner McCain sparred with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney over which candidate was most conservative, keeping Giuliani largely out of the hot seat with his closest competition.

But Giuliani may not be able to stay out of the hot seat for long. Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist and Republican strategist, told WORLD that voters in South Carolina "don't have their antennas up yet" and that most conservatives don't yet know the full range of Giuliani's liberal stance on social issues. Many voters are attracted to the former mayor's "star quality" and his past reputation, but Republican activists will work hard to "fill in the blanks" on Giuliani's positions in the coming months, says Woodard.

Oran Smith of the pro-life, South Carolina-based Palmetto Family Council agrees. Smith told WORLD that South Carolina is "in the honeymoon stage with all the candidates," and he expects support to shift as voters learn more. Giuliani's opponents are "licking their chops to expose his liberal views," he says, and those views will likely be hard to overcome in South Carolina.

Still, Woodard says that Giuliani would like to win without talking much about social issues. If terrorism and the war remain the country's chief concerns, he says, "He just might be able to do it."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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