It was February 2000, during the most intense moments of the GOP presidential primaries, and the campaign of then-Gov. George W. Bush, was looking to finish off the insurgent campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., with a devastating attack portraying McCain as unfriendly to women.
Bush and his advisers thought they'd found a winning issue: breast cancer research. McCain's opposition to "earmarks" — congressional spending programs that were added into spending bills without going through the normal legislative process — included votes against the North Shore Long Island Jewish Hospital breast cancer program and New York University's women's cancer program.
In preparation for New York's March primary the Bush campaign was hunting for a popular New Yorker to publicize these votes on the airwaves, depicting McCain as heartless. They turned to a natural choice — New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who had endorsed Bush.
An emissary from the Bush campaign called him and asked him to be in the ad.
The mayor's response was simple, recalls top Giuliani aide Tony Carbonetti. "He said, 'No, I'm not going to be involved in anything bashing John McCain,'" Carbonetti said. The Bush campaign ended up using an ally of then-Gov. George Pataki, Geri Barish, a breast cancer survivor and paid staffer with the Nassau County Republican Party.
Days later, Giuliani joined Bush and Pataki at a breast cancer forum at University Hospital in Stony Brook. Bush and Pataki repeatedly attacked McCain for not supporting breast cancer research, but Giuliani held his tongue.
"I'm here because I support Governor Bush very, very strongly," he said when asked what he thought about McCain on the subject. "It's quite possible to argue very, very strongly in favor of the governor and not get involved in the other part because of a personal friendship."
Politics is a world of alliances and allegiances, of studied acquaintanceship and calculated schmoozing. But by all accounts, Giuliani and McCain are legitimate pals, friends since 1998. When the New York Yankees lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series, the two even attended six of the seven games together.
Last year, before either man officially entered the presidential race, the two men broke bread at Elio's on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, just the most recent of several lively dinners where their conversations, punctuated with laughter and wine, focused on sports, family, and of course politics
But now the two friends find themselves competing not only for the same office but in many cases for the same voters, especially independents and moderates. As they, via the media, debate torture and Giuliani's now-indicted Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, the snipes have become harder-edged. And with the race heating up, the friendship will undergo quite a test.
To be sure, debate is what campaigns are all about. And at times this year, the two competitors' mutual-admiration society has seemed even a little odd.
In March, asked to explain Giuliani's lead in national polls, McCain told reporters, "I'm not here to try to tout Mayor Giuliani for president of the United States, but having said that he understands law and order; he worked in the Justice Department; he has many qualifications that I think are impressive. And I'd like to stop touting his candidacy, but he's a genuine American hero who has great credentials."