Will prostate cancer set back Giuliani's Senate campaign?

Supporters say no, but some observers wonder if it will make him abandon a race he never seemed that keen to wage.

By Jesse Drucker
Published April 28, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Mayor Rudy Giuliani revealed few details about his prostate cancer diagnosis Thursday, but the lack of information didn't stop pundits from speculating about what the bad news will do to his U.S. Senate race against Hillary Clinton.

Republican political consultant Nelson Warfield, who was the spokesman for Ronald Lauder in a bitter contest with Giuliani for the 1989 Republican mayoral nomination, wasted no time declaring the mayor politically wounded.

"There'll be fewer checks written until he makes his intentions clear," he told the Associated Press. "He's very ambivalent about this contest,'' Warfield added. "Even before this, it was clear -- given his reluctance to go upstate and his diffident campaigning -- that there was a less than total commitment to the contest."

The Giuliani campaign disputes that, and points to a surge in donations to its Web site Thursday as proof that the mayor won't be hurt by his diagnosis. The campaign normally raises approximately $2,000 per day via the site. But on Thursday it raised approximately $10,000, according to campaign spokeswoman Kim Serafin.

"I think it shows people are supportive and are with us all the way," said Serafin, who said the campaign was deluged with supportive e-mail messages.

The mayor himself said that he has not yet decided on a course of treatment, which is likely to involve either radiation or surgery. Recovery from a radical prostatectomy -- the removal of the prostate -- generally lasts three to five weeks, which would still give Giuliani roughly five months to campaign.

At his news conference Thursday, Giuliani, 55, said he had not thought about how the diagnosis would affect his Senate race. "I have no idea. I mean, I think in fairness to, to me, to the Senate race, to the Republican Party, to all the parties and everybody else, you need some time to think about it. And I really need to know what the course of treatment is going to be before I can evaluate ... I hope that I'd be able to run, but the choice that I'm going to make is going to be based on the treatment that's going to give me the best chance to have a complete cure."

Giuliani, whose father died from prostate cancer at 73, added, "I don't think it's fair to answer questions about the Senate race right now. Should I do it? Would I be able to do it the right way? I hope that's the case, but I don't know."

Several political consultants said that should Giuliani decide to continue running, the cancer would have no impact and could actually help him.

"It's April, these are two candidates whose supporters are pretty much locked in, it's a treatable cancer, assuming it's not too far along," said Norman Adler, a political consultant who advises both Republicans and Democrats. "My guess is -- assuming it's treatable -- that it shouldn't really change a whole lot. Nowadays, in modern campaigns, except for fund-raising, most candidates don't spend a lot of time out pressing the flesh."

Adler added, "He's got several things going for him: He's a known commodity. He's not like [U.S. Senate candidate Jon] Corzine over in New Jersey. Second, he's got a very well-heeled campaign, because he's got a lot of money. Third, his electorate is locked in; it's not abandoning him."

New York's political world did not pause. "I'm taking the view that he's still going to move ahead, that he'll still be the candidate," said New York Conservative Party chairman Mike Long, who is interviewing candidates to oppose Giuliani and Clinton. "If he isn't the candidate, maybe the world does change. But I'm not going to put things on hold. The clock is still ticking. Our convention is June 3."

However, some insiders speculated that Giuliani's illness could give him an excuse to drop out of a race for an office that many believe he doesn't want all that much, anyway. "It's created a window for him to gracefully exit that didn't otherwise exist," said Brooklyn Democratic Councilman Ken Fisher. "I don't know if he'll take it."

However, Fisher added, "I think it's too fresh for him to have fully absorbed this. You can be as reassuring as you want about slow-growing cancers, but that doesn't change the impact on somebody when they're told they have cancer. I think it's going to take a while for him to figure out what it means to him."

One mayoral supporter was already speculating that either former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato or Gov. George Pataki could run in Giuliani's stead. U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio, R-Long Island, who has repeatedly talked about running -- and has already raised roughly $3 million -- refused to comment. The Republican candidate will be picked at the party convention on May 30.

Despite the diagnosis, Giuliani's campaign announced that he is moving ahead with plans to travel upstate over the next week. But one Republican elected official speculated that the strain of a campaign could be too much to bear.

"There's a difference between coming to work and running for U.S. Senate," he said. "The stress is unbearable. The strain, the travel, the staff briefing you on issues, getting up and debating, not getting enough sleep, shaking hands -- that stuff is just agonizing."

Among those who speculated that Giuliani's illness could actually help him in the race was Scott Levenson, president of the Advance Group, a Democratic political consulting firm. "In the long term, it has the potential of making him more sympathetic, and consequently more electable," he said. "Plus, being more sympathetic makes him less easy to attack. Somebody weak and undergoing radiation treatment is hard to attack. It's hard to go after him."

Indeed, the surprising news appeared to pacify most of Giuliani's critics for at least a day. One exception was street artist Robert Lederman, a frequent and prolific enemy of the mayor's who titled his daily Giuliani e-mail alert "Sympathy for the Devil: Giuliani has cancer." He ran down his entire list of grievances against the mayor, from being "exceptionally nasty, exceptionally vindictive and heartlessly cruel" during his career as an attorney, to spraying malathion to combat mosquitoes this year, and concluded:

"Let us in all sincerity wish this man well but as we do, let us never forget how he has consistently wished us ill. Cancer is a terrible disease that I literally wouldn't wish on my worst enemy -- and the Mayor is as close to a worst enemy as I hope to ever have. I truly hope the Mayor will recover -- but I for one will not ignore the past seven years of misery and devisiveness he has deliberately caused in this City."

Jesse Drucker

Jesse Drucker covers politics for Salon from New York.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton Rudy Giuliani