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RNC Chairman: Stick With Bush

Sending a clear message to Congressional Republicans, newly elected Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie emphasized that strengthening President Bush’s political hand will benefit Senate and House candidates in 2004.

“The stronger he is, the more able he is to campaign and help others get elected,” said Gillespie in a wide-ranging interview last week.

Gillespie said that the unity he is seeking was already very much in evidence, dismissing setbacks House and Senate Republicans have handed the administration in recent weeks on issues such as drug reimportation, a child tax credit and loosening Federal Communications Commission restrictions on media ownership.

“There is always going to be a give and take over details,” Gillespie said, quickly adding: “On the things that matter to the American people, we are incredibly united.”

Gillespie contrasted the current state of the Grand Old Party with the “complete and utter disarray” he said is afflicting Democrats, as symbolized by the nine-candidate presidential field.

“They’re all Howard Dean,” he said, arguing that the Democratic candidates have moved to the ideological left after the former Vermont governor found unexpected success with that strategy.

Aside from Dean, the former governor of Vermont, Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.), John Edwards (N.C.) and Bob Graham (Fla.) as well as Reps. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) are running for the Democratic nomination. Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun and Rev. Al Sharpton are also in the race.

“They are offering shrill criticisms of the president and his policies but they’re not offering much in the way of alternatives,” Gillespie said. “They are suffering from a perception that they are a pretty negative party and obstructionist in nature.”

Democrats’ blocking tactics in the Senate — especially over the appointment of federal judges — would only feed that perception, Gillespie said.

A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee dismissed Gillespie’s criticism and said that the new chairman could expect more verbal and legislative jousting in the weeks and months to come.

“Get used to it,” advised Tony Welch. “Earth to Ed: ‘You’re in a campaign.’”

Despite the occasional potshot at the Democratic field, Gillespie sought to downplay any notion that he would serve as the “attack dog” for his party.

Gillespie admitted, however, that his approach is significantly more aggressive than that of his predecessor — former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot — but that the changing circumstances dictated a change in style.

“[Racicot] didn’t have nine Democrats trying to distort the president’s record every single day,” said Gillespie, who honed his political skills during a decade spent in the office of then-Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).

“I know the role I have been cast in,” Gillespie added. “I try to make the case vigorously for our side without being personal and petty.”

While acknowledging the RNC’s first priority is re-electing the President, Gillespie echoed the president’s sentiment that GOP leaders are not interested in a “lonely victory.”

“The president’s re-election is critically important but so is the House and the Senate,” Gillespie said.

Though he made no hard and fast promises, Gillespie suggested that the RNC and Bush will be “active” in states like South Dakota and North Carolina, which are likely to play host to competitive Senate races but are locks for the GOP presidential ticket.

South Dakota stands at the top of many national Republicans’ wish lists as Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) has become the Democrat Republicans most love to hate.

In North Carolina, Rep. Richard Burr (R) has already banked nearly $3.5 million.

Bush carried South Dakota by 22 points and North Carolina by 13 in 2000.

“The president does have the capacity to energize Republican voters and get them to the polls,” Gillespie said. “That energy and intensity will benefit Republicans up and down the ticket.”

He argued that the current issues environment coupled with the Senate and House playing fields offer Republicans a chance for a “durable majority” after the 2004 elections.

Republicans control the House by 12 seats and, although they have only a two-seat majority in the Senate, there are only 15 GOP Senators up for re-election next year as compared to 19 for Democrats.

In addition, Democrats face the possibility of five vulnerable open-seat contests in Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida.

Edwards and Graham are currently pursuing their party’s presidential nomination while Sens. Fritz Hollings (S.C.) and John Breaux (La.) have yet to make definitive pronouncements about their political futures.

Only Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) has made his departure official; Democrats have yet to field a top-tier candidate, although former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young is seriously considering a bid. Republicans have several candidates already running for the seat including Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins.

Republicans have fewer potential retirements with speculation centering on Sen. Don Nickles (Okla.). Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (Ill.) has already said he will not run for a second term in 2004.

Pointing to these opportunities, Gillespie noted that in 2002 Bush made a “huge difference” in the election of Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), helping her raise money early in the cycle and appearing with her three times during the race.

Dole, a Bush rival in the 2000 presidential race, beat former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (D) 54 percent to 45 percent, after polls showed the contest within the margin of error less than a month from Election Day.

Bush was largely credited with helping Republicans retake control of the Senate as last-minute campaign stops in Georgia and Minnesota provided momentum for GOP challengers to topple more established Democratic candidates. Only in South Dakota did Bush’s efforts fall short as Sen. Tim Johnson (D) defeated former Rep. John Thune (R) by 524 votes.

“Talk to any one of the Senate candidates that were in tough contests” about Bush’s impact, Gillespie said. “He can do it again if we all stay on the same page.”

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