WASHINGTON (AP) - Presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani has always been known as a rare-breed Republican who favors abortion rights.
As he seeks the GOP nomination in a party dominated by anti-abortion voters, the question is whether his stance that played so well in liberal New York City hurts his candidacy - or whether his message of fiscal conservatism and a strong defense will override social conservatives' concerns.
"I hate abortion. I would encourage someone to not take that option," the former mayor said last week during the first GOP presidential debate. "But ultimately, since it is an issue of conscience, I would respect a woman's right to make a different choice."
Lately, Giuliani has struggled to square what he calls his personal opposition to terminating pregnancies with his long record of support for a woman's right to choose. He has been forced to defend his positions - and some seeming equivocations - on a late-term abortion procedure, public funding for abortions and the 1973 landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.
There's no doubt he will have to answer questions about those issues again during a GOP debate next week in South Carolina.
In Simi Valley, Calif., last week, Giuliani was alone among 10 Republicans at the first debate who offered a less-than-robust affirmation when asked whether it would be a good day if the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.
"It would be OK," Giuliani said. "It would be OK to repeal it."
But, he added: "It would be OK also if a strict constructionist viewed it as precedent" and kept the law intact.
The convoluted answer surprised GOP strategists and nonpartisan analysts alike. They argued that the cloudy response threatened to undercut Giuliani's overarching claim to be the strong leader the nation needs, and that the candidate needed to be clear about his longtime abortion-rights stance.
"If he embraces his position, it will be less damaging, I think, than if he tries to use variations on a theme," said Costas Panagopoulos, a Fordham University political science professor.
Added Greg Mueller, a conservative GOP strategist who is unaligned in the race, "You don't look like a leader when you take both sides of an issue."
Among the top Republican contenders, only Sen. John McCain of Arizona has a clear record opposing abortion. On Monday, he said a Republican candidate who favors abortion rights faces long - but not impossible - odds in winning the nomination.
"I think anything is possible, but I don't think it would be real easy," said McCain, adding that "one of the fundamental principles of a conservative (is) to have respect and commitment to the dignity of human life, both the born and unborn."
The third top contender, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has drawn plenty of heat for what he readily acknowledges has been a reversal on the issue. He has said he was "effectively pro-choice" but changed his mind and became an abortion opponent two years ago.
A well-known commodity in Republican circles, Giuliani saw his popularity spike when he made clear earlier this year that he was running for the GOP nomination - and for months he rode atop national popularity polls with a double-digit lead.
But his advantage in those surveys has narrowed considerably, perhaps because of increased examination of his record.
Greg Strimple, a New York-based Republican consultant who is neutral in the race, said the GOP race right now is more about leadership than about issues.
"As Republican voters weigh Rudy Giuliani's pro-choice position on abortion against his leadership during 9/11, they're picking leadership," Strimple said. "But Giuliani needs to be careful. If he doesn't state his pro-choice position concisely, it could evolve into a character issue that affects voter perceptions of his leadership skills."
As he has campaigned, Giuliani has sought to lessen the potential fallout from his abortion-rights position by emphasizing that he is personally against it and maintaining that he would name conservative judges to the federal bench who would strictly interpret the Constitution. He also praised the Supreme Court's decision to uphold a ban on what critics call partial-birth abortion - even though he opposed a very similar measure in the past.
However, he's caught heat for his mayoral record, partly because of the efforts of rival campaigns seeking to ensure that Republican voters are fully aware of it.
Just this week, there were fresh news stories about Giuliani and his then-wife, Donna Hanover, making six contributions totaling $900 in the 1990s to national, state and local chapters of Planned Parenthood. The group is among the country's major advocates of birth control and abortion rights. The donations had been noted in financial disclosure forms Giuliani made public in the 1990s.
As mayor in the 1990s, Giuliani also spoke at a national Planned Parenthood convention, once declared a "Planned Parenthood Day" in New York City and issued a proclamation honoring birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger.
In a 1989 interview with Phil Donahue for Newsday, Giuliani said he would advise his own daughter against terminating a pregnancy. But, he said, should she decide to get an abortion anyway, "I'd give my daughter money for it."