One of the leading contenders for the Republican Party's presidential nomination next year is former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.   Giuliani won praise for his handling of the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and for a drastic reduction in crime in the city during his tenure as mayor. But critics point to Giuliani's combative style as a political drawback.  VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more on Giuliani's career and personal background from Washington.

In the tense hours immediately following the 9/11 attacks, no one on the national scene embodied the combination of sympathy, resolve and strength more than New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "It is terrible.  The damage is terrible.  People are doing everything that they can to rescue as many people as possible and this is going to be a longer-term effort.  I just wanted to make sure that everything is here that could be here.  It is, so we just pray to God that we can save a few people."

It is that image of compassion and toughness that Giuliani hopes will carry him to the Republican presidential nomination and into the White House in 2008.

But the political phenomenon known as Rudy Giuliani came from humble beginings.

Giuliani was born in Brooklyn in 1944, the grandson of Italian immigrants. 

Even thought his father spent time in prison, Guiliani went on to become a lawyer and a federal prosecutor who went after white collar criminals and some of the city's notorious Mafia figures.

Giuliani narrowly lost a bid for mayor in 1989, but won four years later and quickly gained a reputation as a crime fighter and tax cutter.

But Giuliani's combative political style frequently got him into trouble and he was criticized by civil rights activists for his handling of some highly publicized incidents of police abuse that targeted minorities.

Among his critics is former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. "Giuliani,  who I would be horrified if he became president because he is a mean spirited guy.  A good mayor, not a great mayor, because he did not like people and insulted people."

After he rushed to the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Guiliani earned praise from citizens and politicians and the unofficial title of America's Mayor.  Time Magazine named him Person of the Year for 2001.

Some firefighters and their families later accused Giuliani of hastily abandoning the search for remains in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

As he seeks the White House in 2008, Giuliani is positioning himself as someone who has proven his cool under pressure and who would aggressively prosecute the war on terror.

Like President Bush, Giuliani sees the struggle in Iraq as the key front in the overall war on terrorism. "The terrorists have been at war with us for quite some time, for quite some time before September 11, and they are going to continue to be at war with us, no matter what the outcome in Iraq," he said. "We hope and we root for and we pray for a successful outcome in Iraq.  Every American should pray for that and want that."

Public opinion polls indicate Giuliani is a top contender because Republicans admire his reputation for leadership.  But some social conservatives reject Guliani's moderate to liberal views on social issues like abortion, homosexual rights and gun control.

Larry Sabato directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "To the extent that Giuliani can keep the election focused on 9/11 and national security, he will have a good chance to be the nominee," he said. "To the extent, though, that the other candidates get their way and we start talking about abortion, gay rights, gun control, the other social issues, immigration, Giuliani is going to be disadvantaged."

Giuliani's personal life could also be an issue in the campaign.  Giuliani is on his third marriage and his marital woes during his tenure as mayor were often fodder for New York's tenacious tabloid newspapers.

John Fortier is an expert on presidential politics at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "If he were to win, he would be in many ways a very strong candidate for Republicans because he could appeal to voters in the middle," he said.  "He is a very charismatic figure and he is also something of a volatile figure, and I think that is something we are going to have to watch as well."

Even many Democrats believe Guilini would be a formidable Republican presidential nominee.  But experts say his biggest challenge will be convincing social conservatives that he is the best candidate.

Debate footage provided courtesy of Fox News