There seems no clear consensus as to who won last week’s first Republican primary debate, but Rudy Giuliani seems to have come out of it relatively unscathed. He took the opportunity of national media attention to make clear his current position on abortion, as opposed to what potential voters might see on youtube or some muckraking blog. As the Washington Post summarizes, Giuliani has again shored up a conservative line on abortion without ever declaring himself pro-life.

‘With a record of supporting abortion rights, Giuliani was the only candidate who said “it would be OK” if the Supreme Court upholds the landmark ruling. “It would be OK to repeal it. It would be OK also if a strict constructionist viewed it as precedent,” he said. […]

‘Giuliani, who said he personally hates abortion, hedged when asked about his current position.

‘”I think the court has to make that decision and then the country can deal with it,” he said. “We’re a federalist system of government and states can make their own decisions.”‘

Giuliani seems to be hedging his bets, implying that this issue would not be his priority but that he’s willing to go along with prevailing conservative sentiment and appoint judges who may well frown upon Roe Vs. Wade. But by emphasizing that it could be decided state by state, Rudy doesn’t come off as rabidly pro-life either, which could attract moderates if he makes it to the general election.

Even as a Republican, Giuliani reflects his origins in liberal New York. But if Democrats have been successful running with populist southerners (Johnson, Carter, Clinton) to quell charges of being too liberal, perhaps Giuliani will benefit from being a Republican whose background and past opinions quell charges that he’s too conservative. Then again, Romney is also a Republican from a liberal electorate, though he has moved more sharply to the right than Giuliani. Even McCain has a reputation as a “maverick” working across party lines on issues like immigration, for which until recently he was a leading advocate of liberal reform. Each of the top tier Republican candidates has a backdoor through which they could move to the center in the general election, which surely affects many Republicans’ strategic thinking for November 2008.

Unlike Mitt Romney, Giuliani has so far managed not so much to flip-flop from most of his previous statements (a few months ago he stood by tax-funded abortions for poor women to guarantee constitutional rights) as to change the focus to how his relatively liberal views on abortion for the G.O.P. still embody the will of the pro-lifers in the Republican primary. Time will tell if he can keep up this tapdance.

*UPDATED 11:15 PM*

The Politico has posted this potentially explosive report that Giuliani and his then-wife donated money to the pro-choice advocacy organization and abortion provider Planned Parenthood on at least six occasions, totalling at least $900.

‘Giuliani’s old contributions could echo throughout the 2008 GOP nomination battle, as he seeks to lessen the political impact of his support for abortion rights — an unpopular position among the social conservatives who in recent elections have weighed decisively in the primaries and caucuses. The issue was raised anew at last week’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, when Giuliani gave a noncommittal answer to the question of whether it would be a good day for the country if Roe v. Wade were overturned. […]

‘On the campaign trail, Giuliani has a consistent mantra when the abortion issue comes up. “I’m against abortion. I hate it. I wish there never was an abortion, and I would counsel a woman to have an adoption instead of an abortion,” Giuliani said last month in Columbia, S.C., in a typical comment.

‘He also frequently notes that, during his tenure as mayor, the number of abortions went down in New York City and that, as president, he would appoint “strict constructionist judges,” a description meant to reassure social conservatives.

‘Asked how Giuliani could reconcile personal opposition to abortion with a contribution to Planned Parenthood, a Giuliani spokeswoman reiterated the former mayor’s stump message…

‘”Mayor Giuliani has been consistent in his position — he is personally opposed to abortion, but at the same time he understands it is a personal and emotional decision that should ultimately be left up to the woman,” said Maria Comella. […]

‘Opposition researchers for other candidates hope to make Giuliani’s life more difficult at regular intervals — and to help them out, they have a trove of video clips and quotes from Giuliani’s time in City Hall showing him to be a vocal advocate of abortion rights. […]

‘Told of Giuliani’s contributions to Planned Parenthood, Clemson University political science professor Dave Woodard said, “If he actually gave money to Planned Parenthood, boy, that puts him in a very precarious position, at least in the South Carolina Republican Party.”

‘A Republican, Woodard noted that a personal contribution is something that is difficult to explain away to abortion opponents. “This isn’t something like where your position is misunderstood,” he said. “An overt act of giving money shows support for a position. That can’t be a mistake or misinterpretation.”‘

Watch over the next few days as Giuliani tries to shift the focus from this, which may prove very difficult.