ATLANTA - America's aggressive stand in the war on terror has kept the nation from being attacked since Sept. 11, the man at the helm in New York during the destruction of the World Trade Center said Wednesday.
"You have to be on offense against terrorism. That's what I learned from Sept. 11," Republican presidential hopeful and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani told an audience of about 200 at Oglethorpe University. "When you show weakness, they take advantage."
Giuliani held what his campaign billed as a "town hall meeting" in a packed room inside the school's student center fresh off a debate in South Carolina on Tuesday night.
He and the other nine GOP candidates supported President Bush's refusal to go along with congressional Democrats in setting a timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq. The president recently vetoed a supplemental spending bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress that tied continued funding of the war to a schedule for withdrawal.
"Giving them a schedule of our retreat in advance is one of the most irresponsible things I've ever heard," Giuliani said.
Giuliani acknowledged that he and the other Republican candidates agree in large part on the two major issues framing next year's presidential election: terrorism and the economy.
He said while the Democratic candidates want to let the tax cuts Bush pushed through Congress expire in 2011, the Republicans favor keeping them.
"I think it's smart to give you money back rather than take it for the government," he said. "This is a stark difference in philosophy between me, a Republican, and what the Democrats would do if they take over in 2008."
But during a question and answer session that followed Giuliani's brief remarks, he took a more moderate stand than some of his GOP rivals on some issues.
He called for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that would go after illegals who have committed crimes but allow those who otherwise have been law abiding to become citizens by paying a penalty.
"I would not give people amnesty," he said. "(But) if you're here and working ... come forward, get identified, pay taxes and you can work."
Giuliani said he supports simplifying the federal tax code as envisioned by the so-called "FairTax" legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Linder, R-Duluth.
But he said abolishing the federal income tax, which Linder's bill would do, is unrealistic given the structure of the economy, which depends on tax exemptions for real estate and charitable giving.
Instead, Giuliani said, he would use the approach President Ronald Reagan took during the mid-1980s.
"He simplified the (tax) rates. He simplified the code," Giuliani said. "It's built back up over the last 20 years."
No questions about either abortion or guns came up on Wednesday. Giuliani's pro-choice and pro-gun control stands put him at odds with many Southern Republicans.
After the session, he noted that he is leading in polls across the region despite his well known views on those social issues.
"I think people realize this election is about how we deal with the terror and how we deal with the economy," he said.
Indeed, the ex-mayor's message on terrorism appeared to resonate most with Wednesday's audience.
"I like his defense policy," Kimberly Stewart of Atlanta said after the meeting. "We need to be on the offense. I think it's saved us from numerous attacks after 9/11."
Mike Rulison of Marietta, a physics professor at Oglethorpe, gave Giuliani high marks for being frank with the audience, including one point where he told a questioner he flat disagreed with her.
"He was very straightforward with his responses," Rulison said. "I was very impressed."