Long dismissed by Washington insiders as incapable of receiving the Republican Party's presidential nomination because of his pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights and pro-gun control views, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was lavished with praise Friday by an icon of American conservatism.
"He is much stronger than anyone could have predicted six months ago," said former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich from Georgia. "New York is four times safer than it used to be. It's one of the greatest achievements of government capability in the 20th century. And Rudy just has to go out and say, 'This is who I am. If you think the world's dangerous, and you need a tough guy … that's me.' "
Gingrich, who co-wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed with Giuliani last month, said he is not endorsing the man who led New York City through the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and he noted that he may still jump into the presidential race against him.
But the words of praise from the architect of the GOP's 1994 takeover of Congress capped a big week for Giuliani, which included more encouraging poll numbers, a raucous reception from California Republicans, and the latest round of softball interviews in which he has been able to downplay his liberal social views by espousing his commitment to appointing "strict constructionist" judges.
Nearly a year before the first presidential primaries are held, a Gallup Poll released Wednesday found that Giuliani has a 16-point lead among Republicans over Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
In general election matchups, Gallup found that Giuliani leads Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., by nine points and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., by two points, within the survey's three-point margin of error. McCain, by contrast, ties Obama and trails Clinton by three percentage points.
Saying that former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass., is going through a "little bit of a rough patch," Gingrich was noticeably cooler toward Romney today than he has been in the past.
Back in November, while appearing on "Fox News Sunday," Gingrich singled out Romney as someone who is working "very hard" to fill a vacuum in the GOP for a "clearer voice of conservatism," adding that Romney "may well succeed."
Gingrich adopted a different tone toward Romney today after cost estimates for his health care plan, which have soared above the former governor's expectations, were revealed.
"I think that he's very smart, he's very articulate, and he's had a little bit of a rough patch with the cost of the health plan in Massachusetts," said Gingrich. "But he's a very smart guy, and I think he'll be a very significant candidate."
In assessing Giuliani's potential appeal to conservatives, Gingrich pointed to Giuliani saying in recent interviews that he would appoint "strict constructionist" judges.
Gingrich predicted that one of Giuliani's GOP rivals would air television ads attacking him for having made positive statements in the past about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice appointed by former President Clinton, who has upheld abortion rights.
Gingrich, however, seemed unconvinced that the line of attack would work.
"And as he said the other day," said Gingrich, "he would have appointed the same two Supreme Court justices as Bush did. So conservatives have got to decide, you know, is that acceptable or not acceptable?"
ABC News' Paul Fidalgo and Matthew Zavala contributed to this report.