Don't Mess with Ed

The new Republican National Committee chairman has a warning for Democrats:

Attack President Bush, and Ed Gillespie’s going to hit you-hard.

The 41-year-old Gillespie-a media maestro and GOP strategist skilled in the art of political counterpunching and message-crafting-was elected to the RNC top spot last week.

In a recent interview, he says the 2004 election is going to be the political equivalent of the shootout at the OK Corral, and he’s gearing up for battle.

For example: What does he think about the Democratic assault on Bush’s handling of postwar Iraq?

Anyone else would dodge that question, fearing that it would sound like the party’s point man was impugning the patriotism of Bush’s enemies and potential opponents in the election. But not Gillespie:

“I would not go so far as to say they are wishing for defeat, but I think they are taking some satisfaction in the misfortunes of others,” he says.

By “others” he’s referring to “progress in Iraq,” a term general enough to encompass U.S. troops stationed there, the Iraqi people, and the life-and-death situations these groups find themselves in.

Translation: Bush’s Democratic critics are delighted when it may appear that chaos is overrunning postwar Iraq and that Baathist guerrillas are running rampant.

“You know ‘fear and loathing’ was once a catchy title for a book,” Gillespie says, “but it’s a lousy way to play politics.”

The Democrats “have crossed the line” of acceptable political discourse on Iraq by trying to score political points on the war’s aftermath when the lives of American soldiers are still on the line, he says.

And this is just the RNC chairman warming up.

Gillespie calls Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) a hypocrite and an opportunist for his criticism of Bush’s policies on Iraq and the war on terrorism. He accuses the Democrats of “playing naked politics” with Iraq to pander to its large anti-war base. He charges that Kerry and the other Democratic presidential contenders are “tripping all over themselves” to get to the left of Howard Dean.

“Their politics may appeal to their anti-war base, but their lack of policy won’t make our country more secure,” Gillespie wrote in one of the dozens of statements he has e-mailed to hundreds of reporters, editorial writers and news bureaus.

Gillespie’s ammunition comes from a busy research team that has catalogued every vote, every statement, every offhand remark, every action that Republicans are aware that the Democratic candidates have made. It is loaded into the RNC’s computers and is ready to fire when needed.

When Kerry attacked Bush’s handling of homeland security in a recent speech, saying that the U.S. “cannot afford to leave the front lines of home security without the resources they need,” Gillespie shot back with a counterstatement that showed the senator had a long record of voting to cut funds for antiterrorism intelligence.

“This is a candidate who voted to cut $2.6 billion in intelligence funds as a member of the Intelligence Committee, including $80 million for the FBI,” he says.

“And now he wants the American people to think he’s a champion of homeland preparedness? Come on, give me a break,” he says.

Similarly, when Rep. Dick Gephardt (D.-Mo.) let loose with a stinging indictment of Bush’s record on national security, charging the country was no any safer now than it was before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Gillespie sent out Gephardt’s voting record against increased funding for the CIA.

“As party chairman, I have an obligation to push back and respond to the inaccuracies from the other party,” he says. “My job is to make sure the record gets set straight.”

Bush could not have sent a more gifted political strategist out into the campaign battlefield to defend him. He honed his message-making skills with House Republican leader Dick Armey and, later, with RNC Chairman Haley Barbour. He was communications adviser in Bush’s 2000 campaign and helped to elect Elizabeth Dole to the Senate in 2002.

“Ed’s been through the political wars and knows how to punch and counterpunch and that’s the level at which this fight is going to be fought out,” says political strategist Bill Dal Col.

Gillespie says he’s ready for the coming fight. “We’re not going to let untrue statements and hypocritical actions go unnoticed,” he says.

Expect to hear a lot from him over the next 15 months.