"People respect Giuliani because of his national stature as a leader," said Andy Brack, the publisher of State House Report, a syndicated weekly column that appears in South Carolina publications. "Otherwise, they don't know much about him. People don't pay much attention until the last minute, like a kid before an exam."
Giuliani's security credentials seem to have distinguished him among voters in South Carolina and Iowa. "In Iowa, they see Giuliani as someone who has the capacity of being a strong leader," said Dumas. "They also see him as a solid conservative on taxes and spending but he's not as good as Romney at overcoming objections on social issues, namely abortion."
Back in New York City, where Giuliani ruled as a two-term mayor, voters have a much more complicated perception of the candidate. "On 9/10, most of the city was ready to move on and was eager for a new mayor," said Rob Polner, the author of "America's Mayor, America's President?: The Strange Career of Rudy Giuliani." "New Yorkers know that he craves confrontation and if there's too much quiet, he's uncomfortable and looks around to throw a punch. Out in Iowa, they don't know about that congenital snarl because he's been wearing that Republican primary smile."
Polner said that Giuliani took liberal positions that would appeal to the city's voters. "When he was mayor, there were three Roe v. Wade anniversary celebrations in the Blue Room at City Hall. He was a major plus for people fighting assault weapons. And he was very immigrant-friendly, going to court to prevent denial of benefits to illegal immigrants. Those are the moderate positions that he's trying to run away from now."
Obama's long-distance makeover seems more subtle, a slight shift to the center since he won his Senate seat in 2004. At the same time, he's bolstered his anti-war credentials while on the national stage. But the local perceptions back in Chicago seem to match the national perceptions pretty well.
In South Carolina and Iowa, he's won support through a grassroots campaign based on meetings in barbershops and small towns, a tactic he perfected while running for state Senate in Illinois in 1997.
Although he generates a lot of positive feelings among voters in New Hampshire, Obama still hasn't captured the progressive niche vote won by Howard Dean in the 2004 primary campaign. "He hasn't made himself into that model insurgent candidate who grabs the hearts of those progressive voters," said Dante Scala, a longtime political observer at the University of New Hampshire. "Obama is not playing the role of the firebrand insurgent that you saw in 2004."
Back in Chicago, Obama is still perceived as a liberal dynamo. "As a lawmaker, he was quite liberal," said David Mendell, a Chicago Tribune reporter and the author of "Obama: From Promise to Power." "He certainly was a guy who believed in government solutions to the ills of society. He tilted to the center when he ran for Senate but he's still perceived as a pretty tried-and-true liberal."
Don Rose, a longtime political consultant in Chicago, said that voters nationwide don't know enough about Obama's reputation as a tough fighter in politics. "People assume that he won the Senate in a walkaway against Alan Keyes," Roses said. "He won a very difficult five-way primary and he beat the machine in that race. And he actually won with an absolute majority, which had not been done in decades."