NEW YORK (AP) -- Rudolph Giuliani, whose endorsement of Michael Bloomberg after the Sept. 11 attacks is viewed as a key factor in the political novice's eventual upset victory in the New York City mayor's race, has been used sparingly on this year's campaign trail even though he has endorsed a former aide.
That may not be an accident. Although Giuliani's popularity was high in New York City for much of his tenure and soared here and beyond as "America's mayor" for his response to the 2001 attacks, that's no longer the case. Appearing on the campaign trail could hurt his former deputy mayor and budget director, Joe Lhota, as much as help him, observers say.
"He's gone so far right, he couldn't get elected in New York City again," said Joseph Mercurio, a political consultant not affiliated with any campaign.
In January, Giuliani publicly urged Lhota to run for mayor after he was commended for steering the Metropolitan Transit Authority through Superstorm Sandy. Several members of his City Hall staff helped launch Lhota's bid, and Giuliani said he would do anything he could to help the campaign.
Giuliani has hosted a few fundraisers, including one last week, and has appeared with Lhota at a handful of campaign events on Staten Island, the city's most Republican-friendly borough. But he has largely stayed out of the public eye.
Giuliani, now a consultant, is not completely gone. He stars in Lhota's most recent television ad. In it, he rushes to Lhota's defense after a blistering attack ad released by rival John Catsimatidis that hit Lhota for raising transit fares and referring to officers of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates much of the city's transportation infrastructure, as "mall cops."
"Joe's opponents' negative attacks are false, they're desperate and they're just plain wrong," Giuliani says in the ad. "Joe Lhota is New York, and he's ready to be our mayor."
Giuliani's capacity on the campaign has been "generally informal," Lhota told The Associated Press in an interview, and he noted that they speak frequently about the campaign.
"He's very busy with his work, and an enormous amount of his work is outside the U.S.," Lhota said.
In fact, Giuliani's spokeswoman said the former mayor was out of the country "this week and next," meaning Giuliani will not be around for most of the final days before the Sept. 10 primary. The spokeswoman, Jo Ann Zafonte, said Giuliani was not available to comment because of his travels.
Giuliani left City Hall three months after the terrorist attacks with an approval rating of 79 percent. But many New Yorkers jeered his key role in the 2004 Republican National Convention, which renominated President George W. Bush, a deeply unpopular figure in the city.
And Giuliani adopted far more conservative positions to make himself more palatable in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, switching his stances to oppose same-sex marriage and strict gun control. Though he was an early favorite, his campaign flopped. He now focuses on his consulting business, Giuliani Partners.
"He hasn't really been engaged all that much with local political stuff in a long time," Mercurio said. "When he ran the first time, lots of Reagan Democrats were still in the city, but they aren't there anymore -- they've died or moved to retirement communities."
Even so, pundits believe Lhota is smart to use Giuliani as a surrogate on police-related issues.
Mercurio noted that Lhota is making a strong defense of stop-and-frisk, the controversial NYPD practice of stopping people deemed to be acting suspiciously. Mercurio also thinks that Giuliani would also be helpful with certain groups, such as elderly voters, conservative Jews, the Wall Street community and in some Republican-leaning neighborhoods on Staten Island and in northeast Queens.
"If you're going to put Rudy out, it should be on law enforcement," Mercurio said. "The 9/11 angle still resonates."
Lhota has led among Republicans in the polls during the entire campaign, but Catsimatidis, a billionaire grocery store magnate, remains within striking distance.
It is unclear if Giuliani's role would be reduced if Lhota captures the GOP nomination and advances to the general election.
Pundits believe that if Lhota advances to the general election, Giuliani would keep a low profile because residents don't remember him just for his response to the terror attacks and for driving down crime -- they also recall his loud clashes with anyone he opposed, particularly minority leaders.
"I don't expect Lhota will use him much on the campaign trail," said Jamie Chandler, a political science professor at Hunter College. "The moderate voters, the middle-of-the road voters are the ones Lhota needs to win. Those people aren't interested in seeing Rudy again."
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 6 to 1 in the city. Polling shows that the eventual Democratic nominee would defeat Lhota in November.
For his part, Lhota downplayed the notion that Giuliani would become a liability in the general election.
"No, I don't think you'll see less of him," he said. "You'll see the same."
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