Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani smiled as he criticized what he depicted as a gaffe made by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the man who has emerged as his primary opponent for the GOP presidential nomination.
"I think the governor knows he made a mistake," Giuliani said in an interview with ABC News, referring to an eyebrow-raising response Romney gave at a Republican debate in Dearborn, Mich., that he would seek the advice of lawyers before attacking Iran's nuclear facilities.
"You sit down with your attorneys and they tell you what you have to do, but obviously, the president of the United States has to do what's in the best interest of the United States to protect us," Romney said when asked whether as president he would seek the authorization of Congress before such an attack.
Giuliani's campaign quickly made an issue of the remarks, and in his first public comments about the Romney response, Giuliani told ABC News, "That's one of those moments in a debate where you say something and you go like this," he said, quickly putting his hand over his mouth — "[oops,] wish I can get that one back."
"Basically right out of the box, first thing, you're faced with imminent attack on the United States, I don't think you call in the lawyers first. I think maybe the generals, the ones you call in first, they're the ones you want to talk to," Giuliani added.
But as he made his way across South Carolina Thursday, Giuliani's eyes only truly sparkled when making fun at the spending proposals offered by New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner.
"She's going to send out Hillary Baby Bonds," he told a thoroughly amused Republican Party crowd in Rock Hill, S.C., brandishing a list of Clinton spending proposals from the last few days. "Everybody born in America is going to get a $5,000 bond. That's not bad? You like that, right? It's not going to be retroactive, though. Maybe John Edwards will bring a lawsuit and they'll try to make it retroactive."
The crowd ate it up — these observations being more schtick than attack, a riff from an amused Republican who cannot believe the ideas floated by the woman he hopes to defeat in November 2008. The deftly delivered, almost joyful assessment reminds audiences of his pitch that he would mount the best challenge, according to many polls, to another Clinton presidency.
Giuliani told the crowd that Clinton after a few days dropped the idea of the Hillary Baby Bond.
"That was good news! I was pretty happy about that because we saved 20 billion," he said, smiling. But then Clinton introduced a new plan.
"The new one is the Hillary 401(k) checks," Giuliani said. "Everyone who opens up a 401(k) at certain income levels will get a $1,000 check from Hillary — no, I'm sorry, from the U.S. Treasury. This one's going to cost 25 billion! So now I'm not so sure that I should have criticized her for the Hillary Baby Bonds because I lost $5 billion!"
"And boy she's just begun," he said as the crowd's giggles subsided. "Hillary has just begun to spend your money."
His "electability" argument is one he hopes will convince conservatives in states like this one that they should overlook the differences they have with him on social issues such as immigration, abortion and gay rights.
There is a veritable smackdown between Giuliani and Romney — blue-state Republicans with a history of moderate views on social issues. While Romney seems to have changed his positions on issues such as abortion and gay rights, Giuliani has generally remained consistent in his views.
"Somebody recommended that way back before I started, 'You've got to change your positions on all these things,'" Giuliani said. "Look, you know, I'd rather not run. Here's the only way I can do it."
Beyond emphasizing his leadership on Sept. 11, perhaps his greatest strength, Giuliani has been trying to play up his most conservative views, which he laid out earlier this year in a series of commitments.
"Look at my 12 Commitments and you'll see how I'll define the Republican Party," he said when asked how his nomination would redefine the GOP. "I'll define it as a party largely built around strong national defense, being on offense against Islamic terrorism and being on offense for a growth economy."
Giuliani supports the Iraq War and rarely criticizes President Bush's foreign policy, but he suggested that the United States is not doing enough in Afghanistan.
"I'll believe they're doing enough when we've caught [Osama] bin Laden and we have totally reversed and created no possibility of the Taliban and al Qaeda re-emerging. Then I will be convinced we're doing enough. And, until we get there, we've got to do more," he said.
But critiques of the president do not come easily. Those of his junior senator roll off the tongue.
In the ABC News interview, it was suggested that Giuliani can't wait for the fight against Clinton.
"No, no, no," he pushed back, taking issue that there was anything personal about what he was saying. "It's the ideology and the thinking. … I guarantee you if Sen. [Barack] Obama or [former Sen. John] Edwards got the nomination, with one or two differences, the same ideological feuds would be there."
In fact, as of now the only non-issue-related personal attack launched in the 2008 presidential campaign was offered by a Clinton campaign co-chair, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who suggested in an interview with the NY1 cable channel that Giuliani's multiple marriages and strained relations with his children would hurt him.
The attack did not surprise Giuliani, he said.
"I've watched the Clintons over the years," he said. "I mean, the whole way in which they deal with allegations sometimes against them — fair or unfair — is they personally attack people of the other side. There's a whole history of that. So I'm ready for that."
He was known as a street fighter in New York politics. Of course, many of his sharpest words were displayed to those who listened to his weekly radio show as mayor. He seems more serene now, calmer. Did his temperament change? Were there remarks he wished he hadn't said?
Giuliani laughed when asked. "Do you know how many things I wish I hadn't said? There are a lot of things I wish I hadn't said. If the question is, 'Have I changed?' You keep changing throughout life. I mean, I've been through a lot in the last seven or eight years. I've been through things people know about — you know, a lot of things in my personal life, a lot of things in my public life, Sept. 11, anthrax, building the business … 94 foreign trips, 35 countries. I've been through cancer. Sure, I've changed."
"How about you gain more perspective?" Giuliani said. "As you get older, you see the value of things. Getting through cancer and getting through Sept. 11 has probably given me a sense of relevance and perspective that I didn't have as much before, which is a lot of things that seem important aren't all that important. When you go through a day in your life and you don't know if you're going to live and you don't know if people around you are going to live, and you find out that some live and some die; when things come up that are not so big, you tend to think, come on, let's concentrate on the big things here.
"Somebody personally attacks me — that's not fatal," he said laughing. "I've been through fatal."