WASHINGTON — Rudy for president? For months, it seemed unfathomable.
A liberal on social issues with a scandal-ridden personal life, Rudolph W. Giuliani was viewed as such a black sheep by many conservatives in the GOP family that he continually was confronted by the question: "Are you really going to run?"
Now such doubts have been silenced. He's running hard, and the former mayor of New York is a political hot property. He's pulled far ahead of the man long presumed to be the party's front-runner for the 2008 presidential nomination -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- and undercut other hopefuls, most prominently Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
In survey after survey of Republicans, Giuliani is leaving his rivals in the dust with double-digit leads. And in key swing states, pollsters have found he would beat the Democratic front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. Even some leading social conservatives are putting aside their differences over abortion and gay rights to join Team Giuliani.
The Giuliani surge may be a sign that social issues will not be the litmus tests they long have been for GOP presidential candidates.
It also reflects the unsettled state of the GOP field. No candidate has established himself as the party's consensus choice. Giuliani is trying to fill that vacuum.
But if doubts about Giuliani's intentions have ended, the honeymoon he enjoyed for so long among voters who knew him only as the hero of Sept. 11 also has a short shelf life.
As he is subjected to more intensive and critical scrutiny, questions loom over whether he can sustain his sky-high status.
As the campaign intensifies, voters will get to meet the pre-9/11 Giuliani -- a brash politician who stepped on toes all over New York; a mercurial personality who humiliated his second wife in public.
Estrangement from son
Meanwhile, his post-9/11 persona could prove a bonanza for opposition researchers: He has made millions in consulting and speaking fees that have so far been examined little.
A type of revelation that could tarnish his image surfaced last weekend when his 21-year-old son, Andrew, spoke publicly about his estrangement from his father in the years since Giuliani's divorce from his second wife, Donna Hanover, and his marriage to Judith Nathan.
Most people know little about such details, polls show, and Giuliani is doing what he can to put his best foot forward in this early stage of the campaign.
"He's taking great pains to define himself before others do so," said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the New York-based Marist Institute for Public Opinion. "But he's got so many of these potential blemishes."
Still, Giuliani's surge -- if sustained -- may lend new credence to the belief among some political strategists that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks "changed everything."
The political world will truly be upended if someone with Giuliani's liberal record on key social issues can parlay the reputation he gained after Sept. 11 into winning the nomination of a party dominated by conservatives.
"People are thinking very broadly about this election," Giuliani said after a recent speech to the conservative Hoover Institution think tank. "The election of 2008 will be different from any prior election, and anyone who views it as a repeat is the one who will lose."
When Giuliani first began leading polls on GOP presidential contenders, his showing was often discounted primarily as a byproduct of his high name recognition.
Political analysts tended to tab McCain as the front-runner, noting that he was outpacing his competitors in fundraising and organizational strength.
Giuliani also invited skepticism by peppering his pronouncements with caveats on whether he was serious about running for president.
But in recent months, he stepped up fundraising efforts and reached beyond his tight inner circle to hire outside political talent, such as Mike DuHaime, former political director of the Republican National Committee.
He also has been buoyed by a tidal wave of encouraging polls at this early point in the race.
In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released this week, Republicans who were asked whom they preferred in a one-on-one matchup chose Giuliani over McCain, 55% to 34%. When other candidates were included, Giuliani led McCain 38% to 24% -- more than double the margin he enjoyed in a December poll.
A recent Quinnipiac poll of voters in two key states found Giuliani ahead of Clinton -- 47% to 42% in Florida and 51% to 40% in Pennsylvania. In Ohio, the two were neck-and-neck.
McCain aides say they are unfazed -- and confident that Giuliani's lead will fade as Republicans learn more about him.
"Giuliani has not made the transition from celebrity to candidate status in voters' minds," said a McCain aide who asked not to be named while sizing up the opposition.