NEW YORK — He was the living symbol of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, a hero to a traumatized nation seeking leadership in a time of crisis. Walking miles through the streets of Manhattan, Mayor Rudy Giuliani urged New York and the world to be calm, said the city would survive. With empathy and restraint, he said the number of 9/11 dead would be "more than any of us can bear."
"It was the worst experience of my life. It was the most devastating experience for the city I was responsible for," Giuliani told The Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview.
A decade later, the man most connected with 9/11 — earning the enduring moniker of "America's Mayor" — parlayed his experience into a lucrative security consulting career. But he proved a flop as a presidential contender in 2008, when the heroics of 9/11 didn't translate into a plausible strategy for winning the Republican nomination. And he says he's bothered by suggestions that he profited from his 9/11 fame.
Giuliani says he's considering another presidential bid in 2012. But he's found it hard to reclaim the mantel of greatness he earned on the city's darkest day.
His most searing memory was watching a man fall from the sky.
Giuliani arrived at the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11 minutes after a second plane slammed into the south tower. He was headed for the command post beneath the burning north tower when police asked him to look skyward to avoid falling debris.
"I kept looking up and I saw a man, on the 101st floor, put himself right in the window and he just flung himself right out," Giuliani told the AP. "I saw the fire behind him. I just froze and watched him because it was so incomprehensible."
There was no time to stop and absorb what he had seen. He strode through lower Manhattan, flanked by his administration, directing security and rescue efforts, visiting hospitals and trying to prevent the city's operations from falling into more chaos.
"We'd handled everything — airline crashes, building collapses, fires, hostage situations, other terrorist threats," Giuliani says now. "But this was so far beyond what we'd contemplated, there must have been a moment where I thought, we can't handle this."
In the afternoon, he stepped before cameras to describe the breadth of the devastation.
"My heart goes out to all the innocent victims of this horrible and vicious act of terrorism, acts of terrorism," he said. " Our focus now has to be on saving as many lives as possible," Giuliani said.
Asked how many had died, he said, "The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear, ultimately."
With that, Giuliani had become the national spokesman for the tragedy. His reassuring and authoritative presence eclipsed that of President George W. Bush, who had flown out of Florida shortly after the attacks and was kept on Air Force One and out of view for much of the day.
Before the attacks, New Yorkers had seemed eager to be rid of Giuliani, a lame duck weighed down by ebbing popularity and a series of personal crises.
The soap opera-like unraveling of his marriage to second wife Donna Hanover and his relationship with a mistress — his now-wife, Judi Nathan — had begun overshadowing accomplishments as mayor, particularly his widely praised rehabilitation of New York after decades of decline. He was first elected in 1994 and won a second term in 1998.
Giuliani's marital woes, which surfaced as he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, forced him to abandon a likely Senate bid against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. The turbulence left Giuliani, then 57, facing an uncertain future in the final months of his second term.
But then came the attacks on his city. The plaudits he received that day made him a wealthy man after he left office in early 2002.
Giuliani became a rainmaker at a major international law firm now called Bracewell and Giuliani. He formed a security consultancy, Giuliani Partners, which advises businesses and governments on how to manage their security needs. He delivers paid speeches on security and economic issues in the U.S. and around the world. And he supports several charities, who sometimes auction off rounds of golf with America's Mayor for as much as $40,000 apiece.
Today, Giuliani says he's "a little sensitive" to critics who suggest he has profited from his 9/11 fame.
"I was pretty successful before Sept. 11 and fully expected that when I left being mayor I would be very successful," he said, adding he'd always planned to practice law and form a security concern.
"What did Sept. 11 do? It took me from 60-70 percent name recognition as mayor of New York to about 90 percent. Of course it had an impact. But it's not the only reason I was successful," he said.
The national political stage is one area where Giuliani's been decidedly unsuccessful.
He entered the 2008 presidential race with great fanfare, leading all national polls of Republican voters despite his moderate positions on social issues like abortion and gay rights. He stressed his credentials on security and terrorism in the campaign — so fervently that then-Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, competing for the Democratic nomination, mocked him in a nationally televised debate.
"Rudy Giuliani, there's only 3 things he mentions in a sentence. A noun, a verb, and 9/11," Biden said, to laughter and applause.
Giuliani's campaign also made serious strategic errors, eschewing early state contests like Iowa and New Hampshire in favor of Florida, whose primary came weeks later. He went down to an embarrassing defeat, dropping from the race after spending nearly $59 million to win just one delegate.
Today, he says he's learned from the experience.
"There is a reality to the primary process and you don't win primaries by being ahead in national polls. You win them by winning Iowa, by winning New Hampshire, by winning South Carolina, winning Florida," Giuliani said. "There were a hundred other mistakes but maybe the hundred others we could have overcome."
Giuliani says he's seriously eyeing another run for the nomination despite the spectacular failure last time. He's critical of President Barack Obama, saying the Democrat has made a faltering economy even worse.
Giuliani would focus mainly on winning New Hampshire, a state whose Republicans are more moderate than those in Iowa and where independents can vote in the primary. The issue environment has vastly changed since 2008, and Giuliani insists he's got the credentials voters are seeking.
"I wouldn't de-emphasize (national security) but right now you have to talk about what people are concerned about, and what they're concerned about is the economy," Giuliani said. "I do have the economic credentials. I ran one of the most complicated economies in the United States and one that was in terrible trouble. And I turned it around."
Giuliani said he wouldn't make a final decision until well after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, probably the end of September. Several other top contenders, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are already campaigning for the nomination.
"I'm going to sit down and talk it over with Judith, wake up one morning and have a decision," Giuliani said. "Part if it will be how the other candidates perform and whether I have confidence one of them can beat President Obama. I'm not sure of it yet."
Sept. 11, 2001, was primary day in New York City, and voters were heading to the polls to choose candidates to succeed Giuliani.Comment on this story
The primary was postponed because of the attacks. And in November, another Republican, billionaire media executive Mike Bloomberg, narrowly won a close race against Democrat Mark Green in part because Bloomberg received Giuliani's endorsement.
With Bloomberg stepping down in 2013 after three terms, would Giuliani ever consider running to reclaim the post that made him famous? He laughs and says no.
"I don't go back, I go forward," Giuliani said. "You also have to realize, been there, done that."
He added, "Going back and doing something over never works. All my ideas, all my thoughts, all my experiences are set in a certain time period. New York City probably needs something different now."