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NEW YORK (Reuters) - With Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton leading the presidential pack, anticipation is growing that they could face off for the White House in 2008 in a New York street fight that has brewed for years.
If the two win their respective party nominations, they would pick up where they left off in 2000 -- when Giuliani pulled out of the U.S. Senate race that Clinton won -- in a case of "campaignus interruptus" that left each one primed for battle, political observers say.
"They're two New Yorkers, two people who know each other, two people who know each other's weaknesses," said Maurice Carroll of the Quinnipiac College Polling Institute. "It will be a knockdown, punch-em-in-the-nose campaign."
As the former New York mayor leads among Republican presidential contenders and the senator from New York leads Democrats, a war of words is growing between their campaigns.
The Giuliani campaign linked Clinton to a liberal group critical of the head of U.S. forces in Iraq, while a top Clinton advisor said Giuliani's three marriages were sure to become sticky issues among voters.
Their confrontations are "an overabundance of New York attitude," said Andrew Polsky, political science professor at New York's Hunter College. "You can expect to see a no-holds-barred campaign."
Their sparring helps solidify their front-runner status and makes each appear ready to move on from their party nominating processes to the general election, said Fred Siegel on the Web site "Contentions," an off shoot of Commentary Magazine.
"It's a mutually beneficial antagonism," said Siegel, who wrote a book "The Prince of the City" about Giuliani. "Each will campaign as the only real alternative to the other."
Indeed, the possibility of their match explains why Giuliani remains strong among social conservatives, despite his liberal views on issues such as abortion, said Michael Tomasky, editor of Guardian America, the soon-to-be-launched U.S.-based Web site of The Guardian.
"Social conservatives are convinced virtually to a person that Hillary is going to be Democratic nominee," he said. "They think Giuliani is the only Republican who's tough enough to stop her. He's a tough, sharp-elbowed New Yorker."
For New Yorkers, such a match might help settle debate over who would have won in 2000 had Giuliani not withdrawn, plagued by an acrimonious divorce, an extramarital affair, prostate cancer and the latest police shooting of an unarmed black man.
Most polls showed the two running neck and neck.
Giuliani had less-than-solid support from state Republicans, many stung by his endorsement in 1994 of liberal Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo.
Republicans who also felt Giuliani's bid was half-hearted had that impression sealed when he canceled an upstate party event to attend a New York Yankees game.
But Giuliani ran strong in the suburbs, where his crime-fighting image appealed to voters who like to visit New York City for an occasional dinner and show.
The battleground tended to be upstate, which is typically more Republican than New York City and tends to distrust the city's mayor and its liberal ways.
New Yorkers may enjoy a Clinton-Giuliani match most, like a so-called subway series when the city's two baseball teams play each other and the rest of the country loses interest.
"New Yorkers are going to love it. The question is, 'Will the rest of the country love it?'" said Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College.
"It's going to be too good a show to miss," he added. "Rudy is a chopbuster, he is going to go for your throat."
As for Clinton, he said: "Rudy is not going to know what hit him, once that machine gets into operation."