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Thursday, January 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Collin Levey / Times editorial columnist
The real New Hampshire winner is a former New York mayor


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For all the talk of New Hampshire as a "notoriously unpredictable" place where anything could happen, the Democratic contest there on Tuesday played out in considerable obedience to the polls. John Kerry got his bounce off Howard Dean's head, even as the former front-runner from Vermont regained his composure. The novice hijinks of Gen. Wesley Clark left the seasoned voters of the Granite State uncharmed despite a prolonged flirtation.

In fact, the most interesting bit of political theater wasn't on the Democratic side at all. Although President Bush didn't face a notable challenge in the state's GOP primary, the administration dispatched three Republican sluggers to draw some crowds of their own in Manchester. New York Gov. George Pataki was on the trail, as was Arizona Sen. John McCain, who beat President Bush there in the 2000 primaries.

But the show-stealer was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Capacity crowds greeted him at rallies and diner stops. He was energetic and engaged, and glowing in his endorsements of Bush. He looked, well, like a man on a mission for national office.

That the former New York mayor was in New Hampshire to raise his political profile isn't rocket science. He has made it clear to interviewers that he's eager to get back into the game. Speculation abounds that he might challenge Hillary Clinton in 2006 for her Senate seat. (He was forced to bow out last time by a prostate cancer diagnosis.)

In fact, all three New York politicians — Clinton, Pataki, Giuliani — are likely candidates for president in 2008. But Giuliani, despite his fame and popularity, has not been a national political player in the traditional sense. He'd immediately leap to the front as, say, George Bush's vice president.

Of course, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney did their best to put any rumors of a ticket change to rest about a year ago when concerns over Cheney's health put the question on the lips of pundits. But then, they might just have been preserving their right to surprise voters tuning into what otherwise would be this summer's suspenseless GOP convention in ... New York City!

Besides, Giuliani would resolve a serious issue for Bush. Cheney has made it clear he won't be a presidential candidate, so Bush needs an understudy to inherit his incumbent laurels in 2008 (assuming he wins re-election).

Yes, Cheney was a great asset in the last campaign, helping many voters get over concerns about Bush's relative inexperience. Among reasonable minds, he's still a great asset to the administration. But Cheney's public image has taken a drubbing. The absence of stockpiled WMDs in Iraq weighs against his account, since he was a strong advocate for the war. And his Halliburton ties have been a piñata for the Democrats. The left-wing Judicial Watch even sued him for defrauding the company's shareholders when he was Halliburton's CEO.

It's all a little unhinged and irrational, but these themes are shaping up as big ones in the election. Every Democrat in the race has adopted the same populist rant, portraying Bush as the servant of guilty corporations and the undeserving rich.

Which brings us to another Giuliani bonus: His path to the New York mayor's office was paved by his previous work as the U.S. attorney, where he gained fame for putting Wall Street malefactors, including junk-bond king Michael Milken and arbitrageur Ivan Boesky, behind bars. Combined with the quick work Bush's Justice Department is making with the Enron crooks, Giuliani would be a strong symbol of the administration's willingness to crack down on bad business actors.

Politically speaking, a Bush-Giuliani ticket would solve a lot of problems.

And the two men have more in common than meets the eye. Despite their reputations as partisan lightning rods, neither is an ideologue. Bush has taken strong leadership positions that have inevitably alienated the multilateral left, but his instincts are moderate. Giuliani, meanwhile, is the quintessential tough-on-crime, fiscally conservative but socially liberal Northeastern Republican.

Assume John Kerry and John Edwards make up the Democratic ticket, playing on the same populist themes that are serving them well in the current campaign. Set up against Bush-Cheney, the election becomes a war for turnout of the bases, with many in the political middle written off. Put Giuliani in the mix and the story is very different. The son of Italian immigrants, his political capital from Sept. 11, 2001, remains substantial. Overnight, liberal antipathy for him melted when he became a national hero and he remains a figure of unquestioned authority for Americans of every political stripe.

Giuliani would give Kerry a strong run even for the unionized firefighters who've been an unsung factor in Kerry's Iowa and New Hampshire victories.

As Cheney's did four years ago, Giuliani's aura would compensate for many of Bush's perceived vulnerabilities and defects. Most of all — Cheney is a loyal-enough Republican soldier to recognize this, too — he gives President Bush someone to hand the mantle to in 2008.

E-mail Collin Levey at clevey@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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