Conventional political wisdom had it that voters such as Charles Micola, a burly, bearded fellow who likes to hunt, would doom Rudy Giuliani's bid for the presidency -- that is, if the former New York mayor didn't doom it himself first.
But neither is happening, and an exchange between Micola and the Republican front-runner at a local high-tech company last week sheds a little light on why.
"I'm an average hunter, and I am curious what your stand on gun control is," Micola said.
Giuliani, a longtime supporter of gun control, smiled.
"You're an average hunter: Does that mean you're not, like, all that good at it, or that you don't do it a lot?" he asked, to the roars of a crowd of about 200.
"I'm a nature walker with a gun," Micola replied, to even greater guffaws.
"OK, let me ask you three questions: How old are you?"
"OK, do you have a criminal record?
"Do you have a . . . mental history?"
"OK, you're OK!" Giuliani replied.
From there, Giuliani went on to explain that while the Second Amendment allows limited gun control, it also guarantees the right to keep and bear arms.
"I will respect that," Giuliani said.
Just that easily, Micola was sold.
"I was undecided, but now I'm voting for him," said Micola, who is from nearby Nashua. "I like everything he stands for. The only thing I was concerned about what his stance on gun control, and now he's answered that."
That's not the only concern Giuliani is answering as he solidifies his place at the top of the Republican polls. He's campaigning with a vigor that was absent from his abandoned 2000 bid for the U.S. Senate seat from New York now held by the Democratic presidential front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"He's tackling this like he tackled being mayor: 2 4/7 ," said Anthony D. Gioia, a Buffalo businessman who's one of Giuliani's top fundraisers.
That fact, combined with the aura of adept leadership that still surrounds Giuliani six years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is winning converts among voters the socially moderate former mayor was never expected to attract.
>Long campaign days
The contrast with his 2000 Senate campaign could not be more stark. Giuliani got plenty of grief for that campaign's late start and his abrupt cancellation of upstate campaign swings, including one he abandoned so he could attend Opening Day at Yankee Stadium.
Finally, after being diagnosed with prostate cancer and separating from his second wife, Giuliani withdrew from that race. And even the right-leaning New York Post seemed relieved.
"Bottom line: he didn't really want the job," the Post said.
GOP activists in early primary states also criticized Giuliani last year for his presidential campaign's relatively late start.
Flash-forward to the fall of 2007, though, and you will find an energized Giuliani on the campaign trial.
His days start early and end late. Gioia said Giuliani stayed until 11:30 p.m., smoking cigars with top supporters after a fundraiser in Syracuse last week.
And at campaign events, he brims with good humor and stays late to shake every hand and answer every question.
In Londonderry, for example, he paced the stage and talked with his hands and his clipped New York accent about how he reinvented New York City and could do the same for the country. And, as usual, he lightheartedly mocked his leading Democratic rival.
"Think about it: If Hillary becomes president and we have HillaryCare, the Canadians will have absolutely no place to go to get health care," he said.
>Honing political skills
Such levity would have been unthinkable in Giuliani's earlier campaigns.
"The ambivalence of 2000 is absent," said Fred Siegel, author of the Giuliani biography "The Prince of the City." "He's much more comfortable, much more relaxed and a better politician in the traditional sense."
Giuliani -- who was, in Siegel's view, "completely ill at ease" during his first run for the mayor's office in 1989 -- couldn't have been more comfortable as he wandered through a Nashua diner last week. When Mike Marsh and John Domingo, two young men from Massachusetts, asked Giuliani to autograph a couple of baseballs, he sat right down at their booth and obliged.
"He seems like a guy I could hang out with," Marsh said.
Of course, Giuliani's record -- most notably his leadership of New York City on 9/1 1 and in its aftermath -- remains the factor voters note most often when asked why they support him.
"I'm from New York," said Matt Slater, 21, a student at St. Anselm College in Manchester. "I know what he can do."
It's also the topic Giuliani returns to again and again in his campaign appearances.
The other candidates "have never run a city, never run a state, they've never run a business of any size," he told the crowd in Londonderry. "That means they've never met a payroll, never had to deal with the practicality of taxes, never felt the weight or the responsibility of the security of other people on their shoulders -- hundreds, thousands, millions.
"This kind of practical experience, it seems to me, is pretty important for the chief executive officer of the United States," Giuliani added.
That argument now resonates across the Republican spectrum. A Pew Research Center poll released last week showed Giuliani with a 13-point lead over his nearest rival for the Republican nomination, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. That poll even showed Giuliani with a slight lead among white evangelical Protestants, as well as Catholics, despite his pro-choice leanings and his three marriages.
>Seeking an anti-Hillary
Those factors don't matter much to voters such as Paul and Delilah Mendrala, a young couple from Merrimack who had never before supported a presidential candidate who backed abortion rights.
"Rudy is the Republican with the most broad-based appeal," Paul Mendrala said at that diner in Nashua where Giuliani stopped for some campaigning -- and to pose for plenty of pictures with families such as the Mendralas. "We are conservative, but not everyone is."
His wife agreed.
"My big thing is that I want to vote for someone who I know can beat Hillary," she said. "I'm pro-life, and I know he's not. But you're not going to agree with everybody on everything. You have to look at the bigger picture."
Then again, the Giuliani campaign doesn't look quite so promising if you look at the smaller picture.
Despite his national lead, he's in third place in Iowa, which will kick off the campaign with its caucuses Jan. 3, behind two candidates who are working hard to appeal to the state's large conservative Christian base: Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. Giuliani is also slightly behind Romney in New Hampshire.
Moreover, other campaigns say that it's just a matter of time before Giuliani reveals himself to be the man many New Yorkers remember from before 9/1 1. That Giuliani was a caustic, street-fighting pol.
Some recall a radio talk-show caller telling him that he was "the biggest criminal in the city."
"What kind of little hole are you in there, John?" Giuliani replied. "It sounds like you are in a little hole. John! Are you OK there? You're breathing funny."
It turned out that the caller had Parkinson's disease.
Yet that Giuliani appears to be light-years away from the one on the campaign trail, who walked into that diner in Nashua on Halloween, picked up a copy of a New York Times Magazine with a grim-faced photo of himself on the cover and held it up in front of his face, shouting: "Trick or treat!"