What will Rudy say to his gay friends?

Speculation that Bush might replace unpopular veep Dick Cheney with the popular -- and extremely gay-friendly -- Rudolph Giuliani came to an abrupt halt when the president called for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Published February 27, 2004 12:37AM (EST)

Whether President Bush's decision to back a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages will hurt his Democratic opponent in the 2004 election campaign remains to be seen. But it's clear that the White House announcement was a setback for at least one high-profile politician with national ambitions -- Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York.

In fact, Bush's public stance against gay marriages should end any further speculation that Giuliani might be tapped to replace Vice President Dick Cheney on the Republican ticket this year. That chatter had been building in recent weeks as Cheney's approval ratings continued to plunge, down 20 points in the last year, while Giuliani's star power has soared. But opposition to same-sex marriage is now a defining issue for the Republican base, and Giuliani has been an open supporter of gay and lesbian rights. And though Giuliani is widely believed to be considering a run for president in 2008, he once again finds himself battling the perception that as a national candidate he's too moderate for Republican Party voters.

"I just don't see Rudy Giuliani being able to sway conservatives within the Republican Party," says Michael Long, chairman of the New York state Conservative Party. "The gay marriage issue draws a line down the middle of the street, and Rudy Giuliani is something of a champion of gay rights."

"I certainly don't think there is a possibility this year of somebody with his position [on gay rights] getting on the national ticket," adds Joseph Mercurio, a New York political consultant who has worked with both Democrats and Republicans. "The conservative base would not tolerate it."

Giuliani's spokesperson did not return calls seeking comment. But Giuliani's sympathies have been no secret. During his administration, gays and lesbians in New York pressed for domestic-partnership rights. Giuliani in turn pushed the city's Democratic-controlled City Council, which had avoided the issue for years, to finally pass legislation providing broad protection for same-sex partners. In 1998, he codified local law by granting all city employees equal benefits for their domestic partners. Giuliani also had gays and lesbians serve openly in his administration, and when he divorced from his wife in 2000, he moved temporarily into the apartment of a wealthy gay couple.

"You can't get much more to the left than Giuliani was on gay issues," says Mercurio. As mayor, Giuliani did not deal specifically with the issue of same-sex marriage. During his aborted run for the U.S. Senate in 2000, he did state: "The institution of marriage should remain defined as a man and a woman."

On Tuesday, citing a recent court ruling in Massachusetts and the issuances of gay marriage licenses in San Francisco, Bush formally backed a constitutional amendment to protect what he called "the most enduring human institution."

By introducing gay rights into the national debate as a classic wedge issue, which will delight his conservative base, Bush undercuts Giuliani's ongoing attempt to bridge the divide between his moderate New York City political record -- pro-choice, pro-gun control -- and more conservative mainstream Republicans, particularly primary voters who remain suspicious of Northeast politicians, even ones who were tough on crime and cool in a crisis.

"Giuliani's pro-choice position will hurt him in some places across the country, but the worst for Rudy will be the positions he's taken on gay rights," says Rich Schrader, a New York Democratic consultant.

If that perception persists, Giuliani, who has made no secret about his desire to return to public office, may have to focus on a run for statewide office in New York, where his pro-gay-rights past won't hurt him, by either running for governor in 2006 or challenging Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton for her U.S. Senate seat.

And that would be a disappointment. "I think his real desire is to be president of the United States," says Long. "There's no question about that."

More immediately, if the issue of same-sex marriage remains as a signature cultural issue of the Republican campaign, it could lead to some awkward moments during the Republican National Convention, to be held at New York's Madison Square Garden in late August and early September.

Giuliani is rumored to be a prime-time keynote speaker. But the contrast between Giuliani's outspoken pro-gay-rights record and the president's call for a same-sex marriage ban "would be unorthodox," says Norman Adler, a New York political consultant and lobbyist who works with both Democrats and Republicans. "And this White House is not known for being unorthodox." Given the recent events, Adler thinks Giuliani's speaking slot might be in jeopardy. "Then again," he says, "Republicans are coming to New York for one particular reason -- it's where 9/11 happened. And nobody is more closely identified with 9/11, in a positive way, than Rudy Giuliani."

Praised for the way he shepherded the city through the aftershocks of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Giuliani soon emerged as a much-sought-after GOP political fundraiser, a nationally recognized Republican with celebrity status. Time magazine dubbed him "The Mayor of the World," and the queen of England knighted him. He wrote a bestselling book, "Leadership," and he became the subject of a made-for-television movie, the USA Network's 2003 "Rudy!" He's always been a political maverick -- in 1994, he endorsed Democrat Mario Cuomo during the New York governor's race.

But with his newfound stature and his higher ambitions, he's been more cautious: He campaigned hard on behalf of conservative, often antiabortion Republicans during the 2002 midterm elections and headlined a GOP fundraiser in Washington that brought in $7.5 million in one night. Recently he has been a dutiful surrogate for the White House, traveling this winter during the Democrats' primary season to Iowa and New Hampshire, where the Seattle Times called the former mayor a "show stealer" who drew capacity crowds

Not known during most of his career for being a team player, "Giuliani's now looking for ways to improve his image among national Republican voters, so he's going around the country being a good Republican," notes one New York City Democratic pollster. "Whatever the White House asks him to do, he does."

The question now may be how he reconciles he strong past support for gay rights with the Bush administration's move to confront the issue politically. Giuliani will likely be forced to finesse the issue for political expediency, as others in both parties are doing. Old allies will be watching closely for clues on how the balance will tip.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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2004 Elections Gay Marriage George W. Bush Hillary Rodham Clinton Lgbt Rudy Giuliani