They're both considered front-runners, which, at this point in a presidential race, is not always a good thing. Just ask Presidents Howard Dean and Ted Kennedy. Still, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton are undeniably at the top, and the political class is salivating. Could this lead to the subway series that never was, when Giuliani dropped out of the New York Senate race in 2000? After all, polls show that Rudy and Hillary beat the party competition when it comes to leadership and electability. In fact, Giuliani seems to be spending most of his time campaigning against Clinton rather than his fellow Republicans, pushing his self-proclaimed moniker as the only-man-who-can-beat-her. Not exactly inspirational. Unless, of course, you're a conservative Republican.
But wait. If there's a general rule about winning presidential primary contests, it is this: Don't focus on the ultimate opposition too early. Just keep your base happy, and get nominated. And on this score, Clinton wins handily. A recent ABC News/ Washington Post poll shows that she has wooed even the most skeptical in her party, with 50 percent now saying she "best represents Democratic values." As for Giuliani, he has work to do. Only 23 percent of Republicans say he stands for their values. Which, considering that he's pro-choice and pro-gay rights and has backed gun laws, makes some sense. But it's not good news. "We're doing well with some conservatives," protests a top Giuliani aide. "Conservatives are not as monolithic as you think. Some really like us."
New direction. Maybe so. But Giuliani might want to pay attention to Clinton's strategy. She's running her campaign by the rules that governed her Senate race: People don't have to adore you; they simply need to know you're up to the job. The process of convincing them can be plodding and calculated. And it's often annoying to watch Clinton's contrived laughter to defuse tough situations and her unwillingness to lay out specific answers to specific questions. If it seems phony, it probably is. But it's working. Clinton knows she's not going to be everyone's first choice, but she wants to make herself acceptable to everybody. In fact, Clinton—portrayed by Barack Obama as the politics-as-usual candidate—has even convinced Democrats that she's the candidate to lead the party in a "new direction." Take that, Obama.
Sure, the Democratic Party has aided Clinton in her image rehab. Consider the war: She refused to admit she made a mistake by voting for the Iraq war, instead offering, "If I had known then what we know now, there never would have been a vote, and I never would have voted to give this president that authority." It's convoluted, tortured, and contrived, no question. But the Democrats' own lack of clarity on the war has let Clinton off the hook. And while Obama may have been against the war from Day 1, these days he's hard to distinguish from Clinton. Both, for instance, said they could not predict that all troops would be out of Iraq by 2013. So where's the fight?
Giuliani is having a tougher time. In many ways, the Republican field is less settled than the Democrats', so there's an opportunity for Rudy to move in. "He should produce one evangelical leader who likes him to match every evangelical leader who hates him," says a GOP strategist advising more than one campaign. He's trying, sort of. A day after the news that some Christian conservative leaders met secretly to plot a third-party candidate if Giuliani wins the nomination, he went out of his way to reassure religious conservatives he's not the boogeyman. "I will do no harm," he says when talking about the sticky issue of abortion. "I will not seek to liberalize existing law." Rudy figures that tack will work with enough rank-and-file antiabortion activists. But it's harder terrain to navigate with his party's base than Clinton's Iraq war vote was with hers. There's a chance that if abortion is neutralized as an issue, evangelical voters might just decide to bolt to the Democrats—finding common ground with them on other matters, like the environment.