SLOAN, Iowa — He squeezed into the diner flanked by burly fellows in pinstriped suits.
When the country’s most famous city slicker came to this small farm town last week, a good portion of Sloan’s roughly 1,000 residents jammed into the corner cafe to catch a glimpse or touch his hands.
Some call Republican Rudolph Giuliani “America’s Mayor” because of that day in New York City that he always reminds folks about: Sept. 11, 2001.
But now he has to convince people here, in this 264th-biggest city of the country’s 30th-most-populous state, that he can translate that City Hall experience to the White House.
“Believe it or not, this isn’t a lot different than when you run for mayor of New York,” he tells reporters after glad-handing his way through the diner and out to the sidewalk.
Sure, Giuliani is running against terrorists. And he offers up some of the toughest talk against Democrats who, he said, want to rush to “retreat” and defeat in Iraq.
But he’s also campaigning on a more basic message: that he’s a mayor who gets things done.
In two days of barnstorming across Iowa last week, Giuliani bragged of ridding New York’s streets of those dreaded “squeegie operators.” He talked of slashing the size of city government and reducing the welfare rolls. And he tried to equate his efforts to clear Times Square of prostitutes and drug dealers to his promise to seal the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ending illegal immigration, he said, is “no more impossible than bringing down crime in New York.”
Touting an energy-independence plan — one that’s hard to distinguish from his rivals’ plans — Giuliani told folks in Waterloo: “Beyond being a believer in it, I’m somebody who gets things done.”
And in Sioux City, when an audience member began railing against corruption and gridlock in Washington, Giuliani cut him off, saying: “I got the point. Washington’s not doing its job. We agree. I’d like to make this point. I don’t come from Washington.”
Start spreading the news. Another New Yorker has started paying attention to Iowa.
Until recently, the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, was the only Empire State visitor that Iowans saw much.
Giuliani, who leads in the national Republican polls, has defied conventional political strategy by downplaying this first-in-the-nation caucus state, instead flashing his famous face in delegate-rich territory on the second page of the 2008 political calendar, like Florida and California.
Some people figured he was writing off Iowa, where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads the polls, when he announced he would skip the non-binding Ames Straw Poll on Aug. 11 — a traditional predictor of the next year’s caucuses.
But last week’s visit was intended as a statement, and at a time when Giuliani is bracing for former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson to enter the GOP field.
“Imagine how we’ll surprise people,” he tells one crowd, adding that if his campaign wins in Iowa, South Carolina or New Hampshire, “we win the nomination.”
Giuliani, whose image was etched in the country’s consciousness after the 9/11 attacks, is running an unorthodox presidential campaign that’s loaded with gambles.
For starters, he’s sticking with an ardent defense of the unpopular war in Iraq and doing little to distance himself from a president whose approval ratings have approached historic lows.
“The thing President Bush did for us — for which he doesn’t get the credit he deserves — (is) he put us on offense” against terrorism, Giuliani said.
He’s going against conventional wisdom that it takes a social conservative, not someone with his moderate-to-liberal views on gay rights and abortion, to be the GOP standard-bearer.
“The Republican Party is looking for something broader than they’ve looked for in the past,” he told Iowans last week.
And, meanwhile, he’s figuratively looking over the heads of some of his Republican rivals and aiming his campaign rhetoric directly at the Democrats “who I believe I’ll ultimately be running against.”
In an interview Wednesday, Giuliani was asked to contrast his policy stands to those of Romney.
“I don’t think of the Republican candidates that way,” Giuliani said. “I only think of the Democratic candidates that way.”
He went on to lump Democratic contenders Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and controversial filmmaker Michael Moore into one broadside against supposed “European-Canadian-Cuban” health-care plans.
In projecting himself as a sort of inevitable nominee, he’s taking a page right out of Clinton’s playbook. Like him, she tries to blur the differences among rivals from her own party and points to a greater gulf between Democrats and Republicans, particularly over the Iraq war.
As Clinton told the Des Moines Register on Friday: “I am winning. I am beating the Republicans.”
It’s a front-runner’s game to try to make the primaries appear to be a foregone conclusion, directing voters’ attention straight to the general election.
For Giuliani to pull that off, he still has to overcome a persistent doubt that conservatives will stick with him when push comes to shove, particularly after Thompson enters the race.
After Wednesday’s event in Council Bluffs, when reporters pressed Giuliani on abortion, he pointed out that none of the audience members had asked him about it that day. “So maybe it’s more of an issue for you than it is for them,” he reckoned.
He might not be aware how often his name and the abortion issue come up at dozens of campaign stops for his more conservative rivals. Time and again, Republican audience members offer an immediate answer when asked if there’s anyone in the field they never could support. It’s Giuliani, they say repeatedly, because of his “liberal” stands on abortion and gay rights.
(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer of the Rocky Mountain News at www.rockymountainnews.com.)