WASHINGTON — Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign was supposed to be toast by now, imploded by his hot temper, autocratic ways, tumultuous personal life and moderate views on social issues, which would turn off traditional Republican voters once they got to know the "Real Rudy."
Or so many of Giuliani's critics thought.
Instead, he remains atop the Republican presidential pack in national polls, powered in large part by his image as the steely hero who guided New York through the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
A small but vocal group of New Yorkers will try to puncture that image Monday when they host a town hall meeting at New Hampshire's Dartmouth College to discuss New York's disaster-preparedness under Giuliani before 9-11.
They say that Giuliani's administration failed to address firefighters' radio communication problems, which first surfaced in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; didn't provide proper equipment for rescue workers at Ground Zero; and showed poor judgment by putting the city's $13 million emergency center on the 23rd floor of 7 World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the attack.
They claim that Giuliani was callous in November 2001 when he limited the number of firefighters searching Ground Zero for the remains of nearly 300 fallen comrades. They also accuse him of expediting the cleanup of the site and sending rubble mixed with human body parts to a Staten Island landfill.
"He's portraying himself as a false hero of 9-11,"said Sally Reganhard, whose son, Christian Reganhard, was a probationary firefighter who was killed at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. "He's not talking about the story of the failure of his administration, and that has to be told, because we have to protect this country."
Monday's event in a small auditorium on the Dartmouth campus, hosted by a group called 9/11 Parents & Families of Firefighters, is one of the few attempts to challenge Giuliani's main campaign narrative, which he's controlled successfully thus far.
If it's successful, members of the organizing group said, they hope to take their story about Giuliani nationwide to counter what they say is an untrue narrative he's presenting on the campaign trail.
Criticizing Giuliani over Sept. 11 may prove to be a daunting task. Campaign experts say he's turned his 9-11 image into almost a trademark that makes him easily identifiable and likable to voters. His Republican presidential rivals have shied away from questioning his credentials on terrorism and national security and instead acknowledge him as a hero and "America's mayor."
"It was a big event, and his role was so big, it's been seared into people's memory," said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "The attempts to criticize Giuliani over Sept. 11 have either been small enterprises or very hesitant."
Democratic presidential candidates seem more willing lately to try to pierce Giuliani's Sept. 11 mystique.
"Rudy Giuliani, there's only three things he mentions in a sentence," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said last month during a Democratic presidential debate. "A noun, a verb and 9-11."
Still, Giuliani's handling of Sept. 11 gives him a certain amount of celebrity status on the campaign trail, where enthusiastic supporters bring copies of his book, "Leadership," or copies of newspaper front pages from the day after the attacks for him to autograph.
"He's created a persona that's different than the operating style when he was mayor of New York, (one) that is larger than life," Hank Sheinkopf, a New York Democratic political consultant, said of Giuliani's campaign. "Heroes are harder to 'get' to in the first place. Heroes have to do less explaining. They just have to show up, smile and not be annoying."
Sheinkopf said Giuliani's campaign moved quickly to protect his 9-11 image, mindful that the slow response of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to the $22 million Swift boat ad campaign attacking his Vietnam War record helped doom Kerry's 2004 presidential bid.
When Jerome Hauer, Giuliani's former emergency chief, said last May that the mayor was responsible for locating the emergency center in the World Trade Center, Giuliani swiftly went on Fox News Sunday and said that Hauer had "recommended that as the prime site and the site that would make the most sense."
Giuliani's campaign has responded only mildly so far to the organizers of the Dartmouth event. It issued a statement from Lee Ielpi, a former New York City firefighter whose son was killed on 9-11.
"I understand the emotion surrounding September 11th, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that it was the terrorists who attacked New York City," Ielpi said in the statement. "On that day and the days following, New Yorkers and the rest of the country were fortunate to have the steady and strong leadership of Mayor Rudy Giuliani."
Jimmy Riches, a New York deputy fire chief whose firefighter son, Jimmy Riches, Jr., died at the World Trade Center, hopes that the 9/11 Parents & Families of Firefighters event will lead to a Swift boat-like campaign against Giuliani.
"We're not going to let it go," Riches said. "We're thinking of setting up one of those 527 funds to tell the story of what happened and let the people decide who they want to vote for."