Just a few short months before the New Hampshire primary John McCain was the political equivalent of a Dead Man Walking. Out of money and with a dispirited staff, McCain was limping through the GOP race having all but given up hope of winning the Republican nomination for president.
But a funny thing happened to the senator from Arizona on the way to political oblivion: Rudy Giuliani came courting the GOP's base of conservative Christians, and after a few awkward dates with "America's Mayor," many of these voters decided that John McCain didn't look so bad after all.
They decided he was essentially Rudy Light — everything they always wanted in a candidate to take on their enemies at home and abroad, but without those pesky liberal calories.
It was a feat that only Rudy Giuliani could have helped McCain pull off, and for McCain it came just in time.
Conservative Christian voters, who have made up the base of the GOP since 1980, have long loathed McCain, and the feeling has been mutual. In 2000, smarting from attacks by leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, McCain shot back, famously labeling them as "agents of intolerance."
But what always made the bad blood puzzling was that McCain, generally speaking, has had a very conservative voting record. He has a lifetime rating of 82 percent from the American Conservative Union. And on abortion, an issue near and dear to the hearts of traditionalists, he has generally been a solid and reliable vote for the anti-abortion side, rarely wavering from his pro-life stance.
Still, the doubts about McCain lingered. Traditionalists have always had a problem with candidates and divorce, believing it to be a character test of sorts. While Reagan was the first divorced president, he passed the test of most conservative Evangelicals and Catholics in 1979 when it became clear that it was his first wife and not he who had filed for divorce.
McCain, on the other hand, failed the traditional divorce test, having returned from Vietnam to face his first wife, Carol, who had been badly injured in a traffic accident while her husband was in the Hanoi Hilton, only to fall in love with the daughter of a wealthy Arizona businessman a few years later. In 1980 he then asked for and received a divorce from Carol, with whom he is said to be friendly, and he married his current wife, Cindy, shortly thereafter.
But there were other problems that had more to do with policy than personality. McCain's support for campaign finance reform troubled his allies in the anti-abortion movement who believed such a law would limit their ability to run advocacy ads on TV, as did his support for embryonic stem cell research. His strong support for immigration reform outraged conservatives who labeled it amnesty. And his work with the Gang of 14, a group that sought to compromise with the Democrats in the Senate in order to get more moderate judges approved, was an unforgivable offense for conservatives concerned about the federal judiciary.
Then there was the matter of McCain's religious beliefs. Long believed to be an Episcopalian, he surprised many last year when he declared he had been attending a Baptist church in Arizona for 15 years and was now a Baptist.
And though it's true that McCain is being propelled by other factors, like the success of The Surge and the lack of a strong conservative standard bearer, it is Rudy Giuliani who has unwittingly created a narrative for a McCain presidency among GOP voters.
Contrary to popular punditry, Evangelicals and traditionalist Catholic GOP voters are often ever the pragmatists, carefully considering a candidate who can win in a general election, sometimes to the frustration of candidates like Sam Brownback and Duncan Hunter, who most closely mirror them on the issues.
And while they resonate with aspects of Mike Huckabee, having spent half a century in the political wilderness before entering the political promised land with Ronald Reagan, they intuitively understand that a Baptist minister from Arkansas with a toothy grin, a streak of populist liberalism and no foreign policy experience is not the man who can take on Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, let alone Usama Bin Laden and a war on terror, and is instead a sure ticket back to political oblivion.
As the Republican race reaches the home stretch, conservative Christian GOP voters looked at the real Rudy Giuliani, found him unacceptable, and found in John McCain a "Rudy Light" — all of the characteristics they liked in America's Mayor but with one less ex-wife and without kids who can't stand him and a liberal record on abortion, taxes, gay rights and guns.
In South Carolina and beyond, they are likely to reject candidates who are most like them (Huckabee) and who most agree with them (Thompson and Hunter) in favor of John McCain as a surrogate for the man they most wish they could have supported, but just couldn't stomach: Rudolph Giuliani.
Mark Joseph is a TV, film and music producer, strategist and president of the MJM Group. His books include "Pop Goes Religion" and "Faith, God and Rock 'n Roll." He has written on politics, pop culture and religion for Beliefnet, NRO and The Huffington Post.
Mark Joseph is a film producer and marketing expert who has worked on the development and marketing of 25 films. His most recent book is The Lion, The Professor & The Movies: Narnia's Journey To The Big Screen.