boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe
GOP presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani greeted supporters at a rally in Wilmington, Del., two weeks ago. Campaign analysts say his repeated references to Sept. 11 can make or break him.
GOP presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani greeted supporters at a rally in Wilmington, Del., two weeks ago. Campaign analysts say his repeated references to Sept. 11 can make or break him. (Matt Rourke/ Associated Press)

Giuliani watchers wonder if he will overplay 9/11 card

WILMINGTON, Del. -- Rudy Giuliani was just six seconds into his speech when he played his campaign trump card: the memory of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I'll tell you the reason I wear this flag," the former New York City mayor told supporters at a recent rally here, pointing to the American flag pin on his lapel. "Before September 11, I only wore this flag rarely. But I started wearing it right after September 11. I wear it every day now. Each time I wear it, it reminds me of September 11."

For Giuliani, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and his response to them have become his strongest campaign pitch, as the GOP presidential candidate reminds voters again and again of the role he played when terrorists crashed two airliners into the World Trade Center towers, killing nearly 3,000 people.

It is a message that appears to be resonating among Republicans. They have put the blunt-speaking former mayor at the top of a crowded GOP field in most polls, and his campaign said Tuesday that he raised more money in the second quarter than any other Republican candidate.

Political analysts say Giuliani's pitch is a powerful message to an electorate worried about another assault on US soil, especially after the recent attacks in Britain.

At the same time, many of these analysts question whether Giuliani can ride the anti terror train all the way to the White House. They say Giuliani risks being tagged as a single-issue candidate for his Sept. 11 performance just when his handling of the attack and its aftermath is drawing increasing criticism from his home city of New York.

"He really defined leadership in the aftermath of 9/11, and that is something that is uniquely his own," said John Zogby , an independent pollster based in upstate New York. "But he does need a second act, possibly even a third act. This is where we get into uncharted waters."

The former mayor has recently sought to expand his campaign résumé, speaking more in recent weeks about other issues, especially the need for fiscal discipline in Washington. But his campaign is still largely centered on protecting America. He peppers his speeches and debates with references to keeping the nation "on the offense" against "the Islamic terrorists," manning the borders against illegal immigrants who might pose a threat or by helping local communities prepare to handle a terrorist attack.

Giuliani's Sept. 11 experience is helping him among Southern voters who otherwise might be turned off by his pro-abortion rights stance or three marriages, said Merle Black , a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. Further, emphasizing the Sept. 11 theme allows Giuliani to make a strong national security argument without focusing on the war in Iraq, a far more politically divisive issue, Black noted.

Giuliani's supporters lavish him with praise for his handling of 9/11. At a recent Giuliani event, many said they could not recall any specific thing Giuliani did the day of the attacks. But, they say, Giuliani's very presence in the streets of Manhattan after the attack -- a stark contrast to President Bush, who was absent from public view for hours after the tragedy -- displayed strong leadership and courage.

"He took control," said Carolyn Mercadante , 70, a Delaware voter who came to see Giuliani speak. "Just the fact that he was such a presence there" in New York the day of the attacks, said 67-year-old Bill Uranko of Middleton, Del., when asked to explain what impressed him about Giuliani's Sept.11 performance. "You could see he was visibly moved by what happened."

Richard Henry , a firefighter from Anne Arundel County, Md., said that among the candidates Giuliani stands out as someone who would protect the nation. "We need a person who is going to take on the terrorists. It's not just a bumper sticker. It's a real thing," Henry said.

In New York City, however, Giuliani's reputation is not as positive as in the rest of the country, where many retain the image of Giuliani as "America's mayor," said Tony Fabrizio , a GOP pollster.

Many firefighters, some police officers, and family members of the victims of Sept. 11 have castigated Giuliani for what they say was poor emergency planning before the attack and a failure to protect workers from poisonous air pollution at the site during the rescue and clean up operation, a charge the Giuliani campaign denies. A New York firefighters' website, fdnyrant.com, brims with vitriolic comments against Giuliani.

The International Association of Firefighters pointedly refused to invite Giuliani to speak with other presidential candidates at the group's annual conference this year, then relented. But, Giuliani didn't attend. Pat Lynch , president of New York City's Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, told NY 1 TV in May that Giuliani "doesn't deserve to be president" because he didn't take care of the police officers who defended the city on Sept.11.

"Everybody bought into the myth" about Giuliani after Sept. 11, said Sally Regenhard , whose firefighter son was killed that day. "All of us, Americans or whomever else, we all want heroes, we all want to be saved by someone -- by Superman, by Moses, by Jesus," she said, adding that Giuliani appeared to be such a savior on the day of the attacks.

But "he's a fraud. What did he do on 9/11? He walked around," said Regenhard, who said she voted twice for Giuliani for mayor.

The Giuliani campaign called the accusations baseless and revisionist.

"Every effort was made by Mayor Giuliani and his staff to ensure the safety of all workers at Ground Zero in the aftermath of this unprecedented act of terror," the campaign said in a statement.

Representative Dave Reichert , Republican of Washington state, and state chairman of Giuliani's campaign, said Giuliani's strong anti terrorism message would drown out those who criticize his performance on Sept. 11 . "When they see your star rise, there's a tendency to try to tarnish that star a little bit," Reichert said in an interview. "The mayor may have more credibility in this [antiterrorism] area than some of the other candidates. He has the experience to back up his comments."

Fred Siegel , a history professor at Cooper Union and author of a book on Giuliani, said some of the public employee union members were upset about other matters, such as Giuliani's refusal to support pay raises for them. "Giuliani governed against the grain. He alienated every interest group in New York, which is why he accomplished so much," said Siegel, author of "Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life."

Lee Miringoff , an independent pollster with the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., predicted there would be a spillover of the anti-Giuliani sentiment in New York City that could infect the former mayor's national campaign.

"Now, he's America's mayor trying to be America's president" by running a campaign heavy with emotional references to 9/11, Miringoff said. But "that gets tarnished after awhile," he added.

Even among Republicans, the attraction to Giuliani may fade as more voters examine his full history as well as issues other than Sept. 11 , said Fabrizio, whose national polling shows Giuliani leading the other nine announced candidates and two possible GOP contenders. Now, Republican voters "see a guy who's tough on terrorism. He takes no crap," Fabrizio said. But, he added, "it may not hold."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES