Posted: Oct. 22, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

Two months after becoming the Republican national chairman, Edward W. Gillespie arrived in Wilmington on Wednesday evening with the confidence of someone who believed all things were possible -- even turning Delaware from a blue state for the Democrats to a red state for the Republicans.

"I do believe the Northeast is very much in play for us," Gillespie said. "I do believe Delaware is going to go Republican in '04."

As much as Gillespie was seeing a red tide for President George W. Bush even though the electorate here voted for Democrat Albert Gore Jr. in 2000, he was not looking through rose-colored glasses entirely.

Gillespie declined to project a Republican victory for governor in 2004, saying only the trend for his party in gubernatorial races around the country was favorable, and he shied away entirely from discussing the GOP prospects against U.S. Sens. Thomas R. Carper and Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democrats who will be up for re-election in 2006 and 2008, respectively.

"We'll have to look at it as the time comes," Gillespie said.

The chairman demurred even as he sat beside U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the Republican stalwart who could create unimaginable havoc if he were to run against either Carper or Biden, undoing the chumminess of the Delaware congressional delegation, but Gillespie knew enough not to urge it and Castle wanted no parts of it.

"No plans," Castle said. Then he said it again. "No plans."

Gillespie was here to fire up the faithful, headlining a $35-a-ticket dinner that drew more than 200 Republicans to Arsht Hall on the University of Delaware's Wilmington campus.

In one sense his visit already stole a march on the Delaware Democrats. When they brought in Terry McAuliffe, their national chairman, in February, they made it largely a private affair, closed to the public and the press, at the Wilmington Club. Except for a small private reception beforehand, the Republicans opened up their event, even attracting C-SPAN for a taping that is scheduled to air Sunday at 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Gillespie brought a strategy and a message. "I'd like to do a little coaching tonight on how we can transition from defense to offense," he said.

The strategy is to register 3 million new Republican voters nationwide, including 7,500 in Delaware. Locally it is a goal that sounds grander than its result would be, simply raising the percentage of Republicans from 34 percent of the 519,816 Delawareans registered in 2002 to 35 percent. The Democrats accounted for 43 percent of the electorate in the last election with the remaining 23 percent unaffiliated with either of the major parties.

The message is that the Republicans will keep the presidency in 2004 because the party has a positive message while the Democrats have become what Gillespie called "the party of protest and pessimism."

Still, the chairman acknowledged the election would not be a runaway but so closely fought that it mattered he was spending an evening in a state with the minimum of three votes in the Electoral College.

"We are anticipating a very close contest," Gillespie said. "President Bush is a strong and principled leader who has restored honor and integrity to the White House -- and we're going to keep it that way."

The Republicans have their work cut out for them in Delaware, if they are to win. The state has not gone with a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, also the last year it elected a Republican governor when Castle ran for the second time. It has dumped statewide Republican incumbents in two of the last three campaigns, including the 2000 election when it cashiered U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. after five terms for Carper.

"We're going to win by out-performing, out-working, out-hustling, out-recruiting and out-smarting the Democrats -- which won't be hard to do," said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman.

Gillespie held himself out as a role model for what could happen. Now 41, he grew up in New Jersey as part of an Irish-Catholic, Democratic family but became a Republican. He got his start in Washington politics as a parking lot attendant for the U.S. Senate.

It sounded, if not exactly like the American Dream, like the Republican Dream -- even a Democratic car jockey from New Jersey could grow up to be the chairman of the Republican Party.