NEWPORT BEACH -- Two surprises surfaced at the California Republican Party Convention a few weeks ago. First was the electric enthusiasm for Rudy Giuliani; second was the widespread ambivalence and, in many cases, even hostility towards John McCain.
Giuliani was there in person delivering an address to a packed luncheon and making the rounds to various overflowing smaller venues. In contrast, the sole McCain presence I encountered was a lone table manned by a single young woman. Giuliani's presence was that of a front runner; McCain's was not.
Having a great deal of respect for John McCain, I pressed a number of people regarding their dislike of the Arizona Senator's candidacy. They conceded that McCain was strong on the issues of foreign policy and fiscal responsibility, but stated that they could not move past things like McCain-Feingold and the "Gang of 14." Others simply said that while they respect much of his record and especially his service in Vietnam, they "still don't trust him." The almost complete absence of the McCain campaign from the convention seemed to exacerbate the trust issue.
Last week a poll conducted by San Diego based Datamar, Inc. confirmed my convention observations. Among likely primary voters in California, the poll showed 11% favoring Romney, 17% preferring McCain, and a stunning 41% supporting Giuliani.
In another election year, with the California primary trailing behind the pivotal Iowa and New Hampshire contests by several long months, the opinions of California Republicans wouldn't matter all that much. But 2008 is a different story.
This presidential election, California is set to move its primary from June of 2008 to February 5 -- less than a year away. By a vote of 31 to 5, the state Senate passed legislation approving the primary move. The Assembly is expected to follow suit quickly, and Governor Schwarzenegger has stated that he will sign the bill if it passes the Assembly.
Trailing just behind the earliest primaries, the most populous state is going to be a battleground. With a twenty-four point lead over McCain and a thirty point lead over Romney, Giuliani is unquestionably standing on the commanding heights in a potentially pivotal California primary.
However, the convention and the polling data present an interesting question. Why does a hawkish and fiscally conservative McCain, who has taken more conservative positions on social issues than Giuliani, engender such animosity among the California Republican base, whereas Giuliani receives a hero's welcome and the poll numbers to match? The answer might be found in symbolism.
As Mayor of New York, Giuliani symbolized a no-nonsense approach to dealing with crime and corruption. He was the tough good guy who took on the mob as an attorney and cleaned up New York as Mayor. September 11 cemented this image and elevated Giuliani to the truly national stage. He became "America's Mayor" and a symbol of American resolve. Republicans love this image, and Giuliani's perceived toughness seems to be eclipsing his record of social liberalism.
In contrast, McCain elevated himself to the national stage as a "maverick" Senator, known for breaking with his party. For many GOP primary voters, the image of McCain the moderate eclipses McCain's conservative voting record, and even his military heroism. In two pivotal strokes, many party stalwarts believe that McCain put himself above his party, and accordingly at odds with them. The first is McCain-Feingold, which most GOP activists see as simultaneously assaulting free speech, hurting the party's financing, and empowering liberal "527" groups like MoveOn.org. The second is the "Gang of 14" in which McCain led a group of seven Republican and seven Democrat senators to work out a compromise and prevent Senate Republicans from using the "nuclear option" to eliminate the Democrats' ability to filibuster judicial nominees. In spite of the fact that both conservative-favored John Roberts and Samuel Alito were confirmed as Supreme Court Justices after the McCain-led "Gang of 14" incident, many see McCain's undermining of the GOP majority as evidence of his unreliability.
Given their disparate ascents to the national stage, Giuliani's enduring image is more conservative than McCain's. At the risk of oversimplifying, it is perhaps fair to say that Giuliani's image is loudly conservative and quietly moderate, whereas McCain's image is loudly moderate and quietly conservative. These disparate images have taken hold among California Republicans, and Giuliani's image is blowing McCain's out of the water.
Much can happen in a year, but images can be very hard to change, regardless of what the candidate says. In California, that is very good for Giuliani, and very bad for McCain. That said, the Golden State's early primary may just be Giuliani's golden ticket to the nomination.
Michael Brandon McClellan, a litigating attorney in Newport Beach, CA, runs the weblog Port McClellan ( www.portmcclellan.com). He was a 2005 Lincoln Fellow of the Claremont Institute.