Rudy in Coulter Land

Giuliani auditions for archconservatives.

Rudy Giuliani

Ann Coulter does not like Rudy Giuliani. Speaking at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington on Friday, the skeletal McCarthyite returned time and again to Rudy’s liberal record. First she focused on his pro-choice position on abortion. “Giuliani is very liberal,” she said. “When this country gets to the point when both candidates support abortion, we can hang it up as a country.” Later she ticked off some of his negatives. “He opposed welfare reform … has the Democrat position on civil unions for gay couples, and he opposed Bill Clinton’s impeachment, which is a big thing with me.” Later she circled back to remark that his “list of negatives makes Nancy Pelosi look like the rational middle.”

The mayor, who had spoken to the group earlier in the day, should have asked for a rebuttal. But Ann Coulter is just a blowhard, right? Yes, but a very popular one. The room was packed as she spoke, and the overflow crowd mobbed televisions set up in the hallway. Dressed in black (presumably to match her heart), Coulter was propositioned by one questioner and fawned over by most others.

The phrase “red meat” is overused when referring to conservatives, but sometimes you find yourself at the butcher. CPAC is a gathering of stalwart and chest-thumping conservatives. When the country France was mentioned in a speech, the audience gave a loud boo. Pictures of Jane Fonda and John Kerry get the same reaction. Given the group’s views about the media, it’s surprising they didn’t throw their shoes at us. Many of the thousands of attendees are college conservatives. When I passed one booth in the exhibit hall, a young man leaned over, took a swig from his flask, and then composed himself. The mix of youth and grievance gives the affair an aura of a sporting event and rush party. Coulter was right at home. Speaking about John Edwards, she said she would offer no opinion because “you have to go to rehab if you use the word faggot.” (Her coarse talk probably would offend some social conservatives, but CPAC attracts people more concerned with cutting taxes, protecting gun rights, and maintaining a strong defense).

I had not come to the conference to see Coulter. I’ve seen her cat-skinning act before. I had come to watch how Rudy Giuliani would talk to this audience that likes him but doesn’t trust him. The conservative movement is in turmoil. Many have abandoned President Bush (he was barely mentioned by any of the speakers), and they haven’t really settled on a candidate in the 2008 field. The last time I saw Rudy speak, he was a vision of moderation, far different from the partisan who spoke at the 2004 Republican convention. Campaigning for Michael Steele, the failed Republican Senate candidate in Maryland, he actually put down a heckler who made a dumb joke about Democrats, saying the country needed to work together. Now Rudy was going to be addressing a room full of people like that fellow.

Would he pander? No. He delivered a vegetarian speech. George Will introduced him as a man “spoiling for a fight,” but except for a few jabs at Democrats, Giuliani was as tepid as Coulter would later be outrageous. Other speakers had organized their remarks around the hot buttons. Mitt Romney, whom conservatives also wonder about, railed against bilingual education, amnesty for illegal immigrants, and gay marriage. This received predictable applause, including that of several young men carrying red foam catcher’s gloves. (Mitt, geddit?) Later, Coulter said Romney was her favorite in the 2008 field. (His advisers weren’t sure whether that helped or hurt. It helps).

Giuliani stayed away from hot-button issues. He didn’t talk about appointing conservative judges, gay marriage, gun control, or abortion. Giuliani appears to have decided to avoid his problematic positions, focusing on his common ground with conservatives. He gave what seemed more like a general-election speech focused around his record as a tax-cutting, tough-on-crime mayor. He also spent a very long time talking about school choice and terrorism. This is the posture of a man who is either so confident that conservatives will overlook his pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights positions that he doesn’t need to risk pandering to them and alienating moderates, or he’s in denial about how much those positions will harm him. It’s also possible he’s talking about his strong points, waiting to attend to those tricky items later when he has a better idea how many conservatives share Coulter’s views about him.

But when you can’t talk about the hot-button issues, it’s hard to rouse an audience of activists. The crowd liked what they heard, but they didn’t pop out of their seats for Giuliani the way they did for other speakers like Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas. When a rock-star candidate like Giuliani says things like “when I am president,” the room usually erupts. When Rudy said it, there was no reaction.