HENNIKER, N.H. — Republican presidential contender Rudy Giuliani defended his positions on a late-term abortion procedure and gun control Tuesday as he faced skeptical GOP voters who questioned his sincerity.
"I don't think there's an inconsistency," the former New York City mayor said of his long-standing support of abortion rights and his affirmation last week of the Supreme Court's decision to uphold a ban on what critics call partial-birth abortion, a measure he opposed in the past.
Once an advocate of strong federal gun controls, Giuliani also disputed the characterization that he advised President Clinton on the matter, talked of leaving the issue up to states, and said: "I agree with the Second Amendment. I always have. I think people have an individual right to bear arms."
On both hot-button issues, Giuliani is advocating more conservative positions than the moderate stances he embraced as mayor. The GOP front-runner in national polls is seeking to mollify conservative voters who make up the core of the Republican Party's base in presidential primaries — and whose support he needs to win the nomination.
Talking about terrorism at an evening speech in Manchester, N.H., the Republican suggested that the country could face another major attack if it puts a Democrat in the White House in 2008.
"If one of them gets elected, it sounds to me like we're going on defense," Giuliani told the Rockingham County GOP. But, he said, if a Republican wins, "we will remain on offense" trying to anticipate what the terrorists are going to do and "trying to stop them before they do it."
Earlier, Giuliani faced some wary Republicans among the several hundred people who attended a question-and-answer session at New England College in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
Molly Smith, 27, of Hooksett, N.H., a Republican who says she supports former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, noted Giuliani's backing of abortion rights as well as his response last week to the Supreme Court ruling.
"How can we trust you on this issue?" Smith asked.
"I think you can be personally opposed to it, hate abortion, respect somebody else's conscience who might make a different decision, and also believe that particular form of abortion is wrong," Giuliani said.
Peter Bearse, 65, a Freemont, N.H., Republican who said he isn't yet backing a candidate but is leaning toward Arizona Sen. John McCain, asked how Giuliani planned to survive a GOP primary given that his past and current positions on abortion and gun control are in conflict. That, Bearse said, raises questions about "believability."
"I'm older than most here, so I remember certain things," Bearse said, recalling that the ex-mayor had advised Clinton on the issues.
Giuliani vehemently disputed that characterization: "The fact is, I never advised President Clinton. I wasn't an adviser to President Clinton." However, Giuliani and Clinton did talk in the 1990s about establishing uniform national gun control laws.
On the late-term abortion ban, Giuliani said he opposed it when it was discussed during Clinton's presidency because he didn't feel it made an exception in the event a mother's life was in jeopardy. But the ban Clinton vetoed — and which Giuliani supported — did include such an exception.
Last week, after the shooting massacre at Virginia Tech, Giuliani said it "does not alter the Second Amendment" and emphasized state-by-state gun control measures, which contrasted with his past enthusiasm for a federal mandate to register handgun owners.
A tense moment came when Marty Capodice, 64, a registered independent of Hopkinton, N.H., questioned Giuliani about what he called the Bush administration's violations of civil rights in the name of national security.
"Just about every personal right has been abridged in the war on terror," he said. "When will you say that's as far as I will go?"
"I think you have grossly exaggerated the case," Giuliani responded. "And you didn't point out the other fact, and that is we haven't been attacked and we've been safe."
Repeating a core part of his campaign speech, Giuliani said the United States must remain on offense against terrorists and defended the administration's domestic wiretapping program, tough interrogation techniques and the USA Patriot Act.
"So, no rights," Capodice said.
That drew a sharp retort from Giuliani: "That's hardly no rights!" he said. "You have more freedom than anyone in this world has ever had — and no one has taken that from you!"
At an earlier campaign appearance, Giuliani said he couldn't evaluate whether President Bush's 10-week-old troop increase in Iraq was working. "I don't know the answer to that," the ex-mayor told reporters after speaking with a group of business leaders in Nashua, N.H.