Outside the Harley Davidson dealership in Manchester, N.H. a handwritten sign proclaims, “Free bikini bike washes!” As advertised, a trio of tattooed twenty-somethings is scrubbing down a giant black motorcycle, while the hog’s husky owner chats with his pals nearby. At the other end of the parking lot, DJ “Scuba Steve” is spinning ‘90s alt-rock tunes from the likes of Rage Against the Machine (as he does every Thursday night), and members of the local chapter of the Harley Owners’ Group are selling hot dogs they cooked on their open grill.
Inside the dealership, Rudy Giuiliani is haltingly explaining his position on gun control. Does the former New York City mayor support a ban on assault weapons? “I don’t support any more government regulations... there are so many... there are already too many government regulations, so that’s not something I would be in favor of.” It’s hardly red meat for a crowd of NRA members and leather-clad motorcycle enthusiasts, but the attendees continue to listen politely and lob softball questions.
The question nobody asks (but everyone is wondering): “What on earth is Rudy Giuliani doing here?
It’s a question that could be applied to the GOP pol’s entire trip to the Granite State, which, by the time it ends Friday afternoon, will have included five public events and a number of private meetings in just two days. Crisscrossing the state to address hospital workers, law enforcement officers, Republican activists, and Dartmouth students, the whirlwind tour is designed precisely to look like the early stages of a soon-to-launch presidential campaign. But is it?
Giuliani certainly isn’t ruling it out. “This election is evolving very slowly,” he told reporters Thursday. “So it’s not too late for someone to get in the race... I think we’ll probably see two or three more candidates, whether or not it will be me.” He said that if no other GOP candidate appears capable of beating President Obama, he will throw his hat in the ring—a decision he says he will make by summer’s end.
Of course, this wouldn’t be his first presidential bid. Widely considered the Republican frontrunner in the run-up the 2008 primaries, Giuliani squandered his lead in the polls with a bizarre strategy that depended entirely on a victory in Florida (that he didn’t get). It’s a legacy New Hampshirites weren’t quite ready to let him forget; he was asked several times throughout the day how he would run differently this time around. “I’ll give you a Reagan answer,” he responded. “I would win.”
In the meantime, his relatively small base of loyal supporters is working to sell him on the idea of running a campaign. Wayne Semprini, who served as Giuliani’s New Hampshire campaign chair in 2008, planned this trip to the state for the politician, and made no secret about his reasons.
“I hope the mayor comes away from this with a belief that he and his message are incredibly well-received here,” Semprini told a small gathering of friends and family at his home in New Castle. “I’ve been told by a lot of pollsters that this state wants a likable tough guy. And I told them, it just so happens I know a likable tough guy.”
The New Yorker certainly is likable. His unconvincing response to the Second Amendment question was actually a rare misstep for the usually-engaging Giuliani, who spent much of the day getting not-always-friendly crowds to eat out of the palm of his hand. At the Seacoast Republican Women’s luncheon, for example, he killed with a joke about Muammar Gaddafi’s henchmen notifying the dictator of the impending NATO attack. (“The bad news is they’re launching a military campaign. The good news is the French are leading it.”)
Giuliani also has mastered the art of answering pointed questions in a way that sticks to conservative orthodoxy while still making him sound like an old McCain-style maverick.
On the debt ceiling negotiations, he urged Republicans to be flexible, but “not in regards to tax increases." (He thinks they should compromise on the size of the spending cuts in order to avoid a default.)
On tax policy he declared, “I don’t believe in reducing taxes as an ideology; some people think it’s a religious principle,” but then delivered the kicker: “I believe in reducing taxes because it works!”
Calling for greater campaign civility, he preached grimly about how outlandish personal attacks on the president have “turned politics into mud wrestling.” But then, in an apparent attempt to link the Obama administration to Cold War-era Communism, he said this: “Government doesn’t exist to command the private economy; that’s the model in Eastern Europe... I don’t think it’s strange that the president and (Treasury Secretary Tim) Geithner believe in that. I went to college and law school in the 1960s; I understand where they learned it.”
All of this adds up to a guy who sounds an awful lot like someone who is running for the Republican presidential nomination. That is, until he is asked his opinion on New York’s recent legalization of same-sex marriage. Much has been made of Giuliani’s gay friends who claim he has backed away from an earlier promise to marry the couple if same-sex marriage ever became legal in the state. The former mayor says he doesn’t recall making such a promise, and that he supports traditional marriage. But at the same time, he issues a warning to the GOP: “The Republican Party would be well advised to get the heck out of people’s bedrooms. Let these things be decided by the states.”
Smart advice? Perhaps. But try selling that to primary voters in Iowa.