The war, not abortion?

In the oversimplified way that politics gets explained, the Republican base -- that is, the voters said to hold the most sway in selecting the party's presidential nominee -- care most about abortion. No pro-choice Republican, the thinking goes, can make it to the general election.

There are problems with this analysis, not the least of which is that few voters care about only one issue. Another is that, particularly in New Hampshire, there are a significant number of Republicans who vote in primaries who are also pro-choice. Anyway, people invariably vote for candidates with whom they do not agree on a given issue -- and sometimes do so even when that issue is abortion.

That said, if you're going to make one issue a stand-in for all others, abortion is a pretty good one. In general, Republicans who do not call themselves pro-life will be more likely to break ranks on other core issues than those who embrace the label. One reason Mitt Romney is trying so hard to persuade people that he is now a pro-life candidate is because he wants to send the message that on a broad range of issues -- from taxes to national security to the role of judges -- he can be trusted to come down on the right side of things.

If Rudy Giuliani indeed runs for president, he will also have to make the case that on a broad range of issues he will come down on the right side -- the Reagan side, if you will. He will not, however, use abortion as a stand-in. It will be the fight against terrorism.

The old way of thinking -- which isn't dead yet -- is that Giuliani cannot pull it off. He is pro-choice, not to mention sufficiently liberal on a range of social issues that he's been compared to Barney Frank.

But what if abortion is trumped by the war?

Because President Bush was unchallenged within his party in 2004, the 2008 presidential election is the first in which Republicans are choosing a post-9/11 nominee. They happen to be doing so at a time when polls find a majority of the country opposed to the president on Iraq. With a number of Republicans in Congress looking like increasingly unreliable allies in the war on terror, some in the party fear the legacy of Reagan hangs in the balance.

Suddenly there are socially conservative Republicans, including here in New Hampshire, wondering aloud whether they can overlook Giuliani's social-issue stands because they feel so strongly that he has the necessary outlook on national security.

John McCain, too, is finding support from Republicans who in the past have recoiled from his stances on immigration and campaign finance and his willingness to make deals undermining some of Bush's judicial nominees. What is it that compels the Republican base to give McCain a second thought?

"The war," explains Gilford Republican Doug Lambert. "That's the thing that matters most above all else to me."

In a sentiment that may apply equally to Giuliani, Lambert adds: "Another point to ponder -- could it be that McCain's 'maverick' ways, those which repulse conservatives like me, might cause enough 'moderates' to vote for him as opposed to the Democrat? Even people mad at Bush, I'd bet. As I said, the war's the main thing for me, and electing a Democrat is almost synonymous with losing it. Electability is important. 'But Doug, what about your principles?' Yeah, I still got 'em, but they'll be safer without a Democrat in the Oval Office."

The dynamic is fascinating. Because two candidates perceived as being absolutely committed to the war on terror are also "squishy" on some core Republican issues, they may be remarkably positioned to win over the party base and the general electorate.

Of course, that's only true if the war has trumped all other issues and if either Giuliani or McCain runs an effective campaign. No matter how many GOP primary voters see national security as their priority this time around, they'll still need significant persuading to back candidates who in other years they would have dismissed out of hand.

(As for the general election, if the national mood is sufficiently sour on Iraq in particular, or a muscular foreign policy in general, no amount of squishiness on the part of a Republican may be enough to defeat the Democrat. Of course, this raises another interesting possibility: Could a Democrat be sufficiently anti-war to overcome being pro-life and win the nomination -- and thus stand a better chance in the general election? We can leave that one for when/if such a candidate announces...)

UPDATE: Here is an online poll positing that Giuliani and Hillary Clinton are the nominees and a "solid conservative" runs a third-party campaign. For whom would you vote? (HT: Hotline)