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.
Mutual Admiration Society
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."
For his part, Giuliani has gone so far as to tell a crowd in Iowa, "I happen to be a very big admirer of Sen. McCain and I can tell you quite honestly that if I weren't running for president I would be here supporting him. If for some reason I made a decision not to run he'd be my candidate."
But in the past few weeks, the tone and tenor between the two seems to have shifted. What seemed almost like a nonaggression pact between them has been rescinded.
Friday, after news broke that Kerik, Giuliani's friend and former aide, had been indicted, McCain told reporters that he "went to Baghdad shortly after the initial victory and met in Baghdad with [Ambassador Paul] Bremer and [Lt. Gen. Ricardo] Sanchez. And Kerik was there. Kerik was supposed to be there to help train the police force. He stayed two months and one day left, just up and left."
"That's why I never would've supported him to be the head of Homeland Security because of his irresponsible act when he was over in Baghdad to try and help train the police," McCain said, an obvious shot at Giuliani who had highly recommended Kerik for the job. "One of the reasons why we had so much trouble with the initial training of the police was because he came, didn't do anything and then went out to the airport and left."
When told of McCain's comments, Giuliani was genuinely taken aback, Carbonetti says, noting that sometimes reporters try to gin up fights by reading quotes to a candidate that a rival campaign has made, though not a rival candidate him- or herself, which is much different.
"I'd be very surprised if John did that," Giuliani said Friday. "John is a good friend." Giuliani said he likely had approximately 20 quotes of McCain extolling his virtues. "John prides himself on being a straight shooter and nothing has changed. And John has made all these comments since these things came out and I really doubt he has changed his mind about that. I'd be really surprised if he did."
Their campaigns, meanwhile, upped the ante, with McCain campaign manager Rick Davis sending out a letter to supporters hammering the mayor's recommendation of Kerik, and noting, "A president's judgment matters and Rudy Giuliani has repeatedly placed personal loyalty over regard for the facts."
Giuliani's communications director Katie Levinson meanwhile hammered back: "John McCain's pure desperation in the face of a failing and flailing campaign" while former Giuliani deputy mayor Randy Mastro said, "It's no fairer to judge Rudy Giuliani on the basis of this one issue than it would be to judge John McCain on the basis of the Keating 5 scandal."
Friends Since 1998
McCain and Giuliani first met in Giuliani's office in City Hall in April 1998, when both men were thinking about ways to nationalize their appeal. "We talked about moderating and broadening the base of the Republican Party," Giuliani told reporters. "He appreciated my influence to that extent to create a broader middle for the party."
As Giuliani traveled around the country that month to increase his national visibility, he headlined a fundraiser for McCain in Arizona. McCain referred to Giuliani's mayoralty as "one of the most remarkable stewardships that I've seen anywhere in any country in the world, much less the United States." Giuliani spent the night at McCain's Phoenix home.
"They're both Type-A personalities, and Rudy's good company," said Mark Salter, one of McCain's top aides and his co-author on several books, when asked why the two became such good friends.
Added Carbonetti: "They're both guys who don't sit back and let things happen. They're very alike and they speak their mind and they do things."
By the time the 2000 Republican primaries rolled around, Giuliani was calling McCain a personal hero. He broke from the New York Republican Party line and voiced support for the inclusion of McCain on the state party's primary ballot. His political committee made campaign donations to both Bush and McCain, and even on primary day, after voting for Bush, Giuliani told reporters, "I think they're both excellent men. I think both of them would make great Presidents."
McCain was a big supporter of Giuliani's short-lived senatorial bid in 2000. After Giuliani disclosed he had prostate cancer, McCain said he would be happy to campaign on his behalf during his recovery. "Rudy's a good friend of mine, he's a fine and decent man," McCain said on Fox News Channel. "I still believe and will believe until my dying day that Rudy Giuliani would make an outstanding senator, he's been a great mayor and he's a good friend of mine."
Giuliani joked, "it might actually be better if he did the campaigning and I stayed at home. He's a much better campaigner."
That was seven years ago, of course, and it's much easier to be welcoming to a surrogate than a rival. Only one person can win the Republican presidential nomination, and with Giuliani and McCain in many ways competing for the same voters it was bound to happen that the two Type-A competitors would start behaving as such.
Is Water Boarding Torture?
The tensions began coming to light on Oct. 24 in Davenport, Iowa, after the president of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, asked Giuliani whether he believed water boarding is torture.
"It depends on how it's done," Giuliani said. "It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it."
McCain, a former prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict who was tortured, has led the legislative effort to ban interrogation techniques prohibited by the Geneva Convention. Upon hearing Giuliani's comments, McCain seemed clearly offended.
"Anyone who knows what water boarding is could not be unsure," McCain told asserted in Sioux Center, Iowa. "It is a horrible torture technique used by Pol Pot and being used on Buddhist monks as we speak."
In Allison, Iowa, McCain added, "I think, very frankly, that those who are running for president who have never had any military experience or much national security experience — like Rudy Giuliani, like Mitt Romney, like Fred Thompson — to say we ought to go ahead and do this water boarding I think shows a fundamental misunderstanding of our national security."
On Bloomberg Television, Giuliani was asked whether he believed he knew more about torture than McCain.
"I can't say that I do," Giuliani said. "But I do know a lot about intensive questioning and intensive questioning techniques. After all, I have had a different experience than John. John has never been — he has never run city, never run a state, never run a government. He has never been responsible as a mayor for the safety and security of millions of people, and he has never run a law enforcement agency, which I have done."
Giuliani asserted that "intensive questioning works. If I didn't use intensive questioning, there would be a lot of mafia guys running around New York right now and crime would be a lot higher in New York than it is. Intensive question has to be used. Torture should not be used. The line between the two is a difficult one."
McCain had a frank and brutal response, telling an Iowa town-hall meeting that "when someone says water boarding is similar to harsh interrogation techniques used against the mafia in New York City, they do not have enough experience to lead our military."
Of particular issue to McCain was a comment Giuliani made in Davenport where he made light of sleep deprivation. "They talk about sleep deprivation," Giuliani joked. "I mean, on that theory, I'm getting tortured running for president of the United States. That's plain silly."
Standing on a stage of indignation McCain suggested that the next time Giuliani wants to make such a joke, he should call McCain's friend and fellow Vietnam veteran retired Marine Col. Orson Swindle "who was once chained to a stool for 10 days and then let off that stool for one day and then chained to the stool for 10 more days." Giuliani should ask Swindle "if there's any relation between running for president and what the ordeal that Col. Owen Swindle went through," McCain said.
'It's a Macho Thing'
Asked Saturday night about this debate between he and the former mayor, McCain said that none of this was personal — it was all about issues.
"Why do I feel so passionately about this torture issue?" McCain said. "It's because I think it's a hell of a lot more than torture. It's a commentary on what America is. … What kind of a country are we?"
When a reporter suggested that Giuliani didn't seem to understand the other side of the debate, McCain said, "In all due respect, it's kind of this macho thing, that, you know 'We gotta be really, you know, tough on terror, that's our image.'"
But McCain insisted that nothing had changed in the personal relationship between he and Giuliani.
"Oh no, no," he insisted.
For his part, even after he'd seen that McCain had in fact personally criticized Giuliani's recommendation of Kerik, the former mayor insisted that they were still friends.
"I will never attack John McCain personally, nor will I question his judgment," Giuliani said. "We can have differences on policies but I'd be very surprised if John would do that to me. We have been good friends. We respect each other."
Ron Claiborne, Bret Hovell and Jan Simmonds contributed to this report.