Where's Rudy? Perhaps no candidate in the 2008 trail mix is as closely associated with the response to 9/11 than former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. So you might assume that if any candidate had the endorsement of the firefighters, it would be "America's Mayor."
But when firefighters from every congressional district in the country met in Washington this week to flex their collective muscle, a bipartisan collection of White House hopefuls quickly assembled to impress the 280,000-member bloc whose endorsement results in priceless political capital, except for one -- Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani was invited to attend the International Association of Fire Fighters candidate forum but ultimately declined, citing a scheduling conflict. His decision not to participate brought to the forefront political tensions that have brewed between Giuliani and the firefighters for some time.
Last week Harold Schaitberger, president of the IAFF, sent a letter to the union's local affiliates blasting Giuliani for scaling back the effort to recover human remains at the World Trade Center site before all remains had been recovered. It's a decision Schaitberger believes deprived some of the families of the 343 firefighters who died on 9/11 from giving some a proper burial.
"He chose to make a decision based on redevelopment pressures," Schaitberger told ABC News.
Giuliani's camp maintains that the former New York City mayor was following the recommendations of safety experts brought in by the New York City Department of Design and Construction and the engineering-construction firm Bechtel.
"It is not a coincidence," Schaitberger said, "that the day after retrieving the assets" of the Bank of Nova Scotia, which had a vault under the World Trade Center, "is when he decided that he was concerned about the safety of our members."
"All of a sudden, now he is concerned about our safety," Schaitberger said. "No, not in our view."
Giuliani responded to the IAFF's criticism earlier this week in Washington.
"The firefighters are my heroes," said Giuliani. "As far as any particular union is concerned, some tend to be heavily Democratic unions, so you can have all kinds of agendas there, but it does nothing for my bond with firefighters, or what I would do for them if I were president of the United States."
Schaitberger said, however, that he has not tried to involve any other emergency-related organizations in the effort to oppose Giuliani.
"It's up to them," he said, based on "whatever their own individual experiences and opinions are."
The IAFF's candidate forum marked a new phase for the 2008 presidential cycle. Ten hopefuls from both sides of the aisle delivered speeches to the nation's firefighters, a 280,000-member bloc whose endorsement results in priceless political capital. (The multicandidate forums that have taken place so far have been single-party affairs.)
"There are those candidates that were invited that are not necessarily up and down on our issues," said Schaitberger. "But we want to make available to them the platform and an opportunity to make their case with our leadership and our members."
Schaitberger attributes his union's ability to attract four Republicans and six Democrats to three factors: firefighters' positive image among the public, their ubiquity and their middle-of-the-road orientation.