The mystique of "America's mayor" shows signs of fraying.
The nation's largest firefighters' union is planning to send out 280,000 videotapes attacking former New York Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his pre-9/11 record -- including his decision to place New York City's emergency operations center in the World Trade Center before Sept. 11, 2001.
In recent months, families of 9/11 victims have planted themselves outside Giuliani fundraisers, and several critical books and documentaries have been released.
Reports have emerged sharply questioning Giuliani's response to the 9/11 attacks, with critics portraying a bullying mayor who, in his zeal for a quick cleanup, brushed aside health concerns about the air at ground zero.
And Giuliani's former emergency management director, Jerome Hauer, is now a prominent Giuliani critic, questioning the former mayor's handling of the turf wars that divided the police and fire departments before 9/11.
"In terms of preparedness, response and leadership, Rudy fell down," said Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, which is preparing the video for distribution to its members.
"Rudy has created an image of himself that he likes to expand upon: that he's the hero of 9/11," Zack said. "And it's not true, especially from the point of view of the firefighters who lived through that day and the families of those who died on that day."
The Giuliani campaign casts the accusations as politically motivated attacks.
While they concede that mistakes were made in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, they express confidence that voters will stick with the image of a strong Giuliani they have in their minds.
"There are groups that for political reasons are going to criticize, but Mayor Giuliani is focused on how the American people can tackle the terrorists' war on us,'' said Maria Comella, a campaign spokeswoman. "There are millions of people around the world who saw the mayor's strong leadership for themselves in the days surrounding Sept. 11."
Giuliani campaign aides note that the firefighters' union has long closely aligned itself with Democrats. And the campaign issued a statement from a retired New York firefighter, Lee Ielpi, defending the mayor's record.
"It should be no surprise that a politically motivated attack is coming from union leaders who backed John Kerry for president in 2004," Ielpi said. "The sentiments expressed in this video are out of step with the IAFF's membership -- clearly there's a difference between the rank-and-file members and these union leaders."
Raising questions about Giuliani's leadership on and around 9/11 threatens to undercut the central rationale for his candidacy: that he understands the nature of terrorist threats and has shown strong leadership during the worst attack the nation has ever experienced.
Yet as Giuliani's campaign has heated up, new revelations continue to pour out.
Wednesday, New York City's medical examiner -- for the first time -- linked ground zero dust to the death of someone who inhaled it: a 42-year-old woman whose office was a block away from the World Trade Center and died five months after the attack.
The Democratic National Committee Thursday cited that fact to argue that Giuliani did not do enough to protect firefighters and other workers at the site.
"The more Americans learn more about Rudy Giuliani's poor decision-making after 9/11 and his role in this tragedy, the more they will question his ability to lead the country," said Karen Finney, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, though the woman who died did not work on the rescue operations.
The Giuliani campaign also pointed out that the former mayor did mandate that Ground Zero workers wear respirators, a point confirmed by city reports filed in the months after 9/11.
"I don't think it's right to blame Rudy Giuliani for what's going on here," Joe Lhota, former New York Deputy Mayor for Operations said on MSNBC last week. "What I think we need to focus on are the people who did work there, who did come down here to work with the rescue effort and the cleanup effort, that we take care of them now."
One strategist for a rival campaign said the other Republicans in the race have an incentive to highlight areas where Giuliani's 9/11 record is less than stellar, though he acknowledged that all candidates have to proceed carefully given Giuliani's wide popularity.
"People don't know much about him outside of 9/11, but over the last couple of weeks and moving forward they're going to become better acquainted with his record," said the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He doesn't have much other than this to run on."
Fred Siegel, a Giuliani biographer and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Center for Civic Innovation, said he sees an early parallel between the current attacks on Giuliani and the withering campaign organized against Kerry in 2004 by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
But Siegel added that Giuliani is so well known by the public that it may be impossible for rival campaigns to tar him as an ineffective leader, even if some of the critiques have some validity.
"This is potentially damaging, but I wouldn't overplay it. People saw for themselves what happened, and it's very hard to counteract that," Siegel said. "People have their own experience with how he handled 9/11, and their own experiences visiting New York, and that will make it much harder to 'Swift Boat' him."
Siegel said he views some of the attacks on Giuliani's record as unfair.
He called it "bizarre," for instance, to suggest that Giuliani wasn't focusing on terrorism before 9/11, since he was emphasizing emergency preparedness throughout his tenure as mayor.
Still, his decision to put the emergency command center in the World Trade Center -- which had previously been the target of a terrorist attack, in 1993 -- certainly proved to be an instance where his judgment was "less than acute," Siegel said.
Asked about that decision last weekend on Fox News, Giuliani blamed Hauer, who was then his emergency management director.
"He recommended that site as the site that would be the best site. It was largely on his recommendation that that site was selected," Giuliani said.
But Hauer sharply disputes that account.
"That's Rudy's own reality that he lives in," he told The New York Times this week. "It is not, in fact, the truth."
The accumulation of recent news stories about Giuliani's leadership -- including new information about the health hazards of the air around ground zero -- contribute to a portrait of a mayor whose seminal moment is far more complicated than myth suggests, said Wayne Barrett, a veteran Village Voice editor who co-wrote a recent critical biography of the former mayor, "Grand Illusion."
"We're learning the recklessness with which ground zero was run, and Rudy Giuliani was the king of ground zero," Barrett said. "If this is the rationale for the candidacy of the leading candidate for president, it's about time that this is getting examined."
The firefighters' chief complaint is that Giuliani's rush to clean up ground zero prevented the remains of scores of firefighters from ever being recovered.
That complaint is legitimate, Siegel said, but has to be weighed against Giuliani's understandable desire to move as quickly as possible in clearing the wreckage from the World Trade Center site.
The key for the former mayor will be how he handles the questions that are being raised -- whether he takes it in stride and defends his record, or whether he loses his temper with those who are criticizing him, Siegel said.
"In a way, it might not be bad for Giuliani, in the sense that it's already out there and it's early," he said. "If he mishandles it, it can rise to that level of harming his campaign. If he doesn't handle it well, we'll know he can't handle the White House."
For his part, Giuliani has mostly brushed aside criticism of his record, saying he'd rather look forward than back.
"The best way to proceed there is we don't blame anybody; what we try to do is learn from it," candidate Giuliani said last month in Iowa.