WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After months of flying high in the 2008 White House race, Republican Rudolph Giuliani has hit turbulence over his support for abortion rights and his dip in some opinion polls.
Giuliani, the former New York mayor often praised for his leadership after the September 11 attacks, has been hammered by conservatives for his abortion stance and his tortured efforts to explain his long-held views in a debate last week.
The criticism grew with news that Giuliani donated in the 1990s to Planned Parenthood a leading provider of reproductive services, including abortion.
The controversies developed as national polls showed Giuliani’s once-substantial lead among Republicans shrinking in the early going leading to the November 2008 election. Polls in some key early-voting states showed him trailing top rivals like Arizona Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting record) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“There are always going to be ups and downs for a front-runner — and Rudy is experiencing some of the downs,” pollster John Zogby said.
The conservatives who often dominate early Republican nominating contests have doubted Giuliani from the start because of his views on social issues, particularly his support for abortion rights.
He exacerbated those doubts at last week’s debate with an ambivalent answer to the question of whether the Supreme Court decision outlawing abortion should be overturned, saying it would be “OK” if it was repealed and also all right if it was upheld.
“I hate abortion,” Giuliani said. “But ultimately, since it is an issue of conscience, I would respect a woman’s right to make a different choice.”
FLOOD OF CRITICISM
His answers opened a flood of criticism from conservatives and prompted McCain, an abortion rights foe, to say a candidate who supported abortion rights would have a hard time winning the party nomination.
Republican consultant Rich Galen said Giuliani’s abortion stance was not necessarily a deal-breaker for Republicans.
“Most people are not single-issue abortion voters, no matter what McCain says,” Galen said. “Nobody has ever tested the idea that you can’t win the Republican nomination unless you are pro-life.”
Giuliani adviser Jim Dyke said the former mayor would talk more about abortion in coming weeks to make his views more clear. On the campaign trail, Giuliani often promises to appoint “strict constructionist” federal judges who will evaluate laws without legislating, and let them rule on the issue.
“You can’t fit it in a sound bite and you can’t put it on a bumper sticker,” Dyke said of Giuliani’s abortion position.
Giuliani’s once formidable lead in national polls, which reached 20 points or more over second-place McCain, has dwindled in recent weeks. A CNN poll released on Monday showed him with a 2-point advantage, although other polls give him a national lead of between 7 and 14 percentage points.
Most of the change came from Giuliani drifting back toward the pack rather than a rival charging ahead. Zogby said the silver lining for Giuliani was that none of the other nine Republican candidates were gaining strength.
“Even as Rudy’s numbers are going down, nobody’s else’s numbers are really going up on the Republican side,” he said. “There is still plenty of room for movement.”
Giuliani trails McCain in the crucial early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that are likely to have great influence over the race’s outcome. Giuliani trails both Romney and McCain in most New Hampshire polls.
“This is what you normally see in October or November of the year before a presidential election,” pollster Dick Bennett of American Research Group said. “Things are happening much quicker this year.”