Rudy Giuliani's lead in the race for the GOP presidential nomination is driven by two words: Hillary Clinton. Republicans see in Giuliani the candidate most likely to defeat Clinton in 2008, assuming, as seems more likely all the time, she emerges as the Democratic nominee for president.
Giuliani actually is not the only GOP candidate who runs well against Clinton; Sen. John McCain runs as strongly as he does. In the most recent CNN poll, Giuliani trailed Clinton by a single point, 48 percent to 49 percent; but McCain is behind by only two points, 47 percent to 49 percent. All other GOP candidates did worse.
But winning a presidential nomination is also a matter of luck, and Giuliani has been very lucky thus far. Eight months ago, McCain was the Republican establishment choice and ahead in most polls. But he is also the most closely aligned with the unpopular Bush administration, and the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq.
McCain also suffers from being both the insider choice and an outsider. His stands on many issues, most recently immigration reform, have grated upon grass-roots Republican voters. As McCain's prospects have declined, Giuliani's have risen and he is now replacing McCain as the choice of much of the establishment, especially the business wing of the party.
Giuliani also is lucky in that the candidacy of the third top-tier candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has blocked the rise of any of the second-tier candidates. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who should be attractive to conservative GOP voters, have not emerged into the top tier.
Romney is gambling that at the end of the day, GOP primary voters will opt for a conservative over the socially moderate Giuliani, and Romney wants to be that conservative. But he has not moved in the polls because conservatives don't trust him.
So Giuliani remains atop the polling leader board not because of anything he has done but because of the weakness of his opponents. But a new opponent is on the horizon, and that could change the dynamics of the race.
Without spending a dime or even declaring his candidacy, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson already has emerged into second place in a number of surveys. At the end of June, the RealClearPolitics summary of polling data found Thompson at 20 percent, ahead of McCain and Romney and just six points behind Giuliani.
The Republican race is proceeding on two levels, a macro contest that pits different elements of the Republican constituency against each other, and the micro level of individual contests in the early primary states.
The one missing element of the GOP race so far has been a candidate enthusiastically supported by the party's culturally conservative voters. Thompson intends to fill that role, and the rallying of cultural conservatives to his candidacy has been key to his sudden rise.
At least a third of Republican voters can be described as cultural conservatives, voters disturbed by secular trends, abortion rights, gay marriage and now immigration reform. For them, illegal aliens are a threat to American values; they broke the law to get here and now some in Congress want to give them amnesty.
Thompson already has emerged as a strong voice against legalizing illegal immigrants; Giuliani has tried to walk a tightrope here, criticizing the immigrant legislation in Congress on technical grounds while not sounding anti-immigrant.
Cultural conservatives divide with the GOP's business-oriented wing over social issues, but both wings are generally united when it comes to the war on terror and national security. While McCain no longer is acceptable to many cultural conservatives because of his support for immigration reform, Giuliani remains acceptable because of his association with national security.
Here again Giuliani may be lucky if Thompson emerges as his main opponent. While his image is that of the "good ol' boy from the mountains of Tennessee," Thompson in fact is a longtime Washington insider and lobbyist with such varied former clients as Philip Morris cigarettes and deposed Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. This is not exactly the formula for the next Ronald Reagan.
There is another aspect to the macro campaign. As the GOP divides into its cultural conservative and social moderate-business oriented wings, it also divides geographically. Social conservatives are strongest in the South and in rural small-town America, moderates in the suburbs.
George W. Bush merged the two wings to win re-election in 2004. He carried not only the traditional GOP suburban voters but also small-town America, the latter by a huge margin. His re-election was guaranteed in Ohio by a massive rural and small-town vote.
But in sifting through the ashes of the 2006 election rout, Republicans found that many small-town voters stayed home, and they suffered deep losses in the suburbs. Most of the 30 House seats they lost -- other than those tainted by scandal -- were suburban, and it was not just in the Northeast. Republicans lost seats in the suburbs of Houston, Denver and Phoenix.
So Giuliani's candidacy is propelled by the argument that he, not Thompson or Romney, can win back the suburbs while holding the more conservative areas because of national security. Giuliani backers argue that you can see an Electoral College majority for Giuliani that you cannot see for the others.
The micro campaign is Giuliani's greatest challenge: None of the first three states to vote in 2008 is particularly good for him, and in none is he leading today.
The Iowa caucuses that will come first are especially daunting. Cultural conservatives dominate the Iowa GOP; there are almost no suburbs in Iowa. A late June survey of Iowa GOP caucus-goers shows Romney -- who already has spent a fortune there -- at 23 percent, with Thompson at 17 percent and Giuliani at 14 percent.
Giuliani probably would be wise just to skip the Iowa caucuses, and his luck will hold if the battle comes down to Romney versus Thompson to see who is the "true conservative."
New Hampshire is the first primary, and here again Romney is doing Giuliani a favor. The latest polls here show Romney in the lead -- he is the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, and much of southern New Hampshire is a suburb of Boston. Giuliani needs only to run second in New Hampshire, as Bill Clinton did to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas in 1992. Right now Giuliani and McCain are battling for second place, with Thompson a distant fourth.
The next state, South Carolina, is Thompson's strongest. Tennessee was settled by migrants from the Carolinas, and Thompson is a favorite son. That is good news for Giuliani, since a loss in South Carolina will not be devastating to him as it was for McCain against Bush in 2000.
Giuliani has to survive these early states, but then he has to win something, and that brings the campaign to Florida. The Sunshine State has moved its primary to Jan. 29. It is the first of the large states to vote, with a huge suburban population and transplanted Northerners. Florida has nearly 4 million registered Republicans; that is more GOP voters than the first three states combined. Late June Florida polling gives Giuliani a six-point lead over Thompson, very close to his national lead. He can ill afford to lose Florida.
A week after Florida comes Super Duper Tuesday, Feb. 5, the day many political scientists think will sew up the nomination in both parties. More than 20 states may vote that day, and California will be not only the biggest state, but one without a native son candidate.
For decades, California batted cleanup with its June primary that often decided the party nominee. As many as 3 million of the nearly 6 million registered California Republicans will cast ballots, many as early absentee voters. Californians have tended to be heavily influenced by what has happened in the other states and by national trends.
National commentators dismiss California as just a media state, but this is overly simplistic. Delegates will be awarded by the results in each of the 53 congressional districts, and grass-roots campaigning can be effective if it is done right.
It is more likely than not that California will decide if Giuliani wins the GOP nomination. He currently leads in the polls, but his support is soft. California would not normally be a good state for a Southern conservative like Thompson.
Current polling gives Giuliani about a 9 percent lead, but 20 percent of the vote goes to McCain and Romney. If McCain and Romney have faded by Feb. 5, where their voters go will decide who wins California.
Abraham Lincoln said Vicksburg was the key to the Confederacy, and that the Civil War could not be won "until the key is in our pocket." Florida and California are the keys for Giuliani; if a socially moderate former New York City mayor is to win the Republican nomination, those keys must be in his pocket.