As the GOP presidential candidates square off tonight for their final debate before the January 2012 primaries and caucuses, former GOP front-runner Mitt Romney is taking some of his sharpest blasts yet. And from a surprising source -- former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani, who lost his own bid for the GOP nomination in 2008, told CNN Monday night that his "gut" tells him that Newt Gingrich will be the "stronger" candidate against Obama in November.
"I think [Newt] can make a broader connection than Romney to those Reagan Democrats," Giuliani said. "If Gingrich is the GOP nominee, [Republicans] won't have this barrier of possible elitism that I think Obama could exploit pretty effectively."
"[Romney] figures out that there are embryos and changes his mind [on abortion]," Giuliani noted, with an air of incredulity. "He was pro-mandate [on health care] for the whole country, then he becomes anti-mandate and takes that page out of his book [supporting mandates], and republishes the book."
Giuliani went on list other Romney flip-flops -- on cap-and-trade and immigration -- before delivering what for conservatives must surely rank as a coup de grace of sorts. "I think Newt has his set of vulnerabilities, but [he has] a more consistent position with real ideas like Ronald Reagan had," he said.
Gingrich, of course, has flip-flopped quite a bit on major policy issues, including some of the same ones Romney has. And even Giuliani once flirted with the idea of softening his pro-choice views to satisfy the demands of the GOP electorate.
But hypocrisy aside, the fact that Giuliani is taking Romney to task, and in such a public way, is an unmistakable sign that some key power-brokers in the GOP are starting to reassess their past support for Romney -- and in fact, are back-pedaling away just as fast as they can.
And that it's Giuliani extending the hook isn't much of a surprise. The former 9/11 hero is often the one who emerges when the party's divisions have reached a boiling point, and tries to turn down the heat, or crack heads, as the situation may require.
During the debt ceiling talks this summer, when the government seemed on the verge of another shutdown, the former mayor went on the network news programs to lecture the Tea Party about the folly of budget brinkmanship, while insisting that Obama himself needed to accept the blame.
Why do Republicans listen to a man whose own stumbling bid for the presidency in 2008 -- he never even made it as far as Romney did -- have made him the object of ridicule?
His standing with GOP voters, for one. Polls consistently show that Giuliani has the highest favorability rating of any leading Republican figure, and at a time of bitter intra-party rancor, he's well-regarded by conservatives and moderates alike.
But, of course, the real issue is probably money. Giuliani remains one of the party's leading fund-raisers -- with T. Boone Pickens and numerous other Bush-era supporters behind him -- and is a highly effective campaigner who's helped numerous Republican candidates get elected, including Senate candidate Marco Rubio in Florida and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
In fact, when Christie flirted with his own presidential bid two months ago, and very nearly jumped in, it was Giuliani and his former campaign team that huddled with Christie for a week, scoping out his possible strategy, and contacting the party's big donors. Mike DuHaime, Giuliani's 2008 campaign manager, was all set to run Christie's 2012 campaign until the New Jersey governor got cold feet and withdrew.
Within days of his withdrawal, Christie turned around and endorsed Romney. And most observers assumed that despite Rudy's long-time friendship with Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- who bucked the GOP establishment and backed Rudy in 2008 -- Giuliani, like Christie, was quietly moving into the Romney camp as well. If he was, the marriage is now clearly over.
Giuliani's damning remarks are all the more remarkable for the fact that Giuliani is still out-performing Gingrich in a head-to-head contest with Obama, and indeed, with the very independents and Reagan Democrats that Giuliani says Gingrich would appeal to more strongly in the general election.
Moreover, many others in the GOP establishment appear to be siding with Romney over Gingrich. The editors of the National Review, for example, just blasted Gingrich, and so have top conservative columnists like George Will and Charles Krauthammer.
And the people of Iowa? Apparently, they can't make up their mind, either. One poll, conducted by Insider Advantage, has Gingrich still atop the leader board, with a double-digit advantage, but another, by Rasmussen, actually has Romney surging back into the lead.
Whatever the outcome in Iowa -- most observers don't expect Romney to win, in fact -- Romney has just lost the support of one of the party's top power brokers, a gatekeeper to many of the GOP big donors whose support Romney has beseeched for so many months, and still badly needs if he hopes to go the distance.
Giuliani's not E.F. Hutton, but his words command attention, and Giuliani knows it. Hence the timing of his remarks, on the eve of the final debate, is telling. More and more conservatives are likely to come out against Romney in the days ahead, especially if he repeats his poor performance in last week's Iowa debate. But public statements aside, the "silent withdrawal" from the GOP's one-time "heir apparent" -- in terms of dwindling endorsements and funding commitments -- could well be just as loud.