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IT'S STILL UNOFFICIAL, BUT RUDY IS RUNNING

With Rudy Giuliani often saying he'd probably run for office again, there were three options: governor, senator and president. When an aide said last week the first two were out, only one choice remains standing.

Rudy's running for prez.

It's unofficial, of course, but there's no other way to read Giuliani's decision to skip the governor and Senate races next year. Win or lose, running for either would have made it impossible to run for president in 2008.

The development brought to mind a conversation with a Giuliani friend in 1988, when Giuliani was a Manhattan U.S. attorney. Amid chatter even then that Giuliani had his eye on Washington, his friend argued he was already a national player. "If you had to name 100 people who have a chance to be president, Rudy's name would be on the list," the friend said then. When I reached the friend last week and reminded him of our conversation, he quickly said, "The list is now down to five."

That sounds about right. In fact, Giuliani's already the front-runner for the GOP nomination. A recent Marist poll put him the top choice among likely candidates, with Arizona Sen. John McCain second.

The same poll put Sen. Hillary Clinton as the top Democrat, meaning she and Giuliani could finally finish that 2000 Senate race aborted by his prostate cancer. Only now the stakes would be higher.

Nobody gets an easy shot at the Oval Office, Giuliani included. Polls aside, he's to his party's left with support for gun control and gay rights. Having been married three times won't help.

But the biggest barrier will be his pro-choice stance. As former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman notes in her book "It's My Party, Too," the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion remains the party's biggest fault line. Whitman writes that except for Gerald Ford in 1976, "every subsequent presidential and vice presidential nominee . . . supported efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade at the time they were nominated."

Perhaps Giuliani could break that string, but he denied that he had even decided to try. "No, no," he told me by phone. "The only thing I've decided is not to rule it out." He said the decision would depend on "how important it is, how necessary it is."

"That's how I decided to run for mayor, based on how much of a difference can you make. I wouldn't run just to get noticed, which some people do. I would do it because I thought I could make a big difference. You really have to believe in that to run."

Will national security be a big issue? "Given what's going on in the world, national security, foreign policy and the global economy will be big issues permanently. The line from 1992, 'it's the economy, stupid,' meaning domestic issues, was permanently changed by Sept. 11."

His health? "My health is terrific, I feel great and I'm cancer free."

Since Hillary is clearly running for president, we might finally get the big showdown? He laughed, long and loud. I take that as a yes.

Michael Goodwin is a columnist for the New York Daily News.

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