WASHINGTON — Many Americans know Rudolph W. Giuliani only from his performance in the smoke and ashes of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York -- a steely image that has propelled him atop the polls in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Now, some groups at the center of the 9/11 experience are laying aggressive plans to tarnish that image and undermine the central pillar of his candidacy.
Officials from a national firefighters union, along with some relatives of Sept. 11 victims, say they will publicly attack decisions Giuliani made as New York mayor before and after the terrorist strikes.
Among other complaints, they say that Giuliani failed to support modernized radios that might have spared the lives of more firefighters at the World Trade Center, and that he located the city's main emergency command center in the complex, even though it had been targeted by terrorists eight years earlier.
Giuliani aides say the accusations are baseless and driven by politically motivated unions with strong ties to Democrats.
So far, the International Assn. of Fire Fighters, the country's biggest firefighter union, says it will aim its anti-Giuliani effort at its own 280,000 members. But union President Harold A. Schaitberger said the group will also "stand ready" to support a much more public campaign by families of firefighters and workers who died in the World Trade Center.
Some organizers are comparing that potential campaign to advertisements by the group Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth, which used personal testimonials from veterans to accuse 2004 Democratic nominee John F. Kerry of exaggerating his achievements as a Navy lieutenant in the Vietnam War.
Kerry disputed the claims, but many Democrats believed the Swift Boat group effectively pierced his image as a war hero and ultimately doomed his candidacy. "It might have the same effect [as the Swift Boat campaign], but our effort will be 100% accurate and truthful," Schaitberger said.
The union's actions are among several threats that could put Giuliani on the defensive in discussing the very aspect of his record that defines his national persona. Lawyers want to question the former mayor under oath as part of a federal lawsuit alleging that the city negligently dumped body parts and other human remains from ground zero in the Fresh Kills garbage facility on Staten Island.
Giuliani's testimony "could undercut his hero status," said Norman Siegel, the lawyer representing families who brought the suit. Siegel is also consulting with some families who have discussed forming a committee aimed at influencing the presidential race.
In a separate matter, one of Giuliani's most prominent political rivals, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), is considering calling the former mayor to testify before a Senate committee on whether the government failed to shield recovery workers from the effects of polluted air after the attacks.
The hearing could provide the unusual spectacle of one party's presidential front-runner questioning the other party's front-runner on an emotionally charged subject central to both of their campaigns.
Giuliani's televised news conferences and other actions after the Sept. 11 attacks helped him build an image as a cool and competent manager who counseled a frightened nation through unimaginable loss. That image has spurred his rise in surveys of Republican voters, acting as a counterbalance to his liberal positions on abortion, gay rights and other social issues, which typically disqualify a candidate in the eyes of conservatives.
But Giuliani has also left bitterness among the families of some Sept. 11 victims.
Representatives of some families said they have not yet decided whether to create a political organization but plan to speak out aggressively against Giuliani. The families are wary of being painted as overly political.
"This is going to be a war for truth," said Sally Regenhard, whose 28-year-old son, Christian, was one of 343 New York firefighters who died in the attacks. "I'll be speaking out as a mother and a parent."
Critics are considering ways to back up their claims with video footage, documents and perhaps audio from recently released emergency dispatch tapes -- though no decision has been made whether they would create television ads with the material.
Anthony V. Carbonetti, a strategist for Giuliani who was also mayoral chief of staff and later a business partner, said Giuliani's presidential campaign would respond by showcasing Giuliani's long-standing relationships with rank-and-file firefighters and police officers.
The mayor opened firehouses, Carbonetti said, and pushed for new "bunker gear" that protected firefighters from intense heat. He attributed the union's anger to disagreements over city pay issues and partisan interests -- the International Assn. of Fire Fighters was an early supporter of Kerry, the Democratic nominee, in the 2004 presidential campaign.