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Gillespie leaving lamented by GOP

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Virginia Republicans are doing some soul-searching now that Ed Gillespie, the party's short-lived but well-respected chairman, has stepped down to take a job at the White House.

"You got a bridge I can jump off?" said Linwood M. Cobb III, chairman of the 7th Congressional District Republican Committee. "It's going to be hard to find someone with his credentials."

Mr. Gillespie's resignation followed Tuesday's bitter primary elections in which anti-tax challengers upended two incumbent Republican state senators who had sided with Democrats in 2004 to enact a $1.38 billion tax increase.

The primary results set the lineups for the Nov. 6 general election.

Republicans have seen their majorities in the House of Delegates and the state Senate shrink slightly over the past few elections and have lost statewide elections for governor and the U.S. Senate.

Democrats, seeking to win four seats they need to gain control of the state Senate, say that the new anti-tax candidates are far too radical for moderate Virginians.

"Their chairman is departing, and the more extreme, partisan elements of their party are taking over," said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, Arlington Democrat.

Republicans want to avoid a repeat of 2005, when conservative Chris Craddock defeated a sitting Republican state delegate in the primary but lost the general election to Democrat Chuck Caputo in the 67th District, which includes parts of Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

As it stands, Republicans are in the early phase of what Mr. Gillespie called the "grand slam" of Virginia politics:

n This year's legislative races will help determine which party draws congressional boundaries in 2010.

n Next year, U.S. Sen. John W. Warner, a Republican, is up for re-election and presidential candidates will vie for Virginia's 13 electoral votes.

n In 2009, state delegates will face re-election and voters will chose the state's 71st governor.

To prevent Democratic gains, Republicans plan to pick up where Mr. Gillespie left off, pushing to re-energize their grass-roots operations and fundraising efforts.

"The fundamentals are in place," said state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, a Republican. "Now it is about finding the person who can keep that momentum going."

Following Sen. George Allen's upset re-election defeat in November, Mr. Gillespie's decision to accept the chairmanship of the state party in December had injected some energy into the party.

"He helped get us on good footing again," said Wayne "Bubba" Ozmore, chairman of the 4th Congressional District Republican Committee. "He took a demoralized group, showed us how to talk to each other and got the conversation going again with grass roots."

Mr. Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, used his connections to help offset Democrats' growing campaign coffers, drawing in national heavy hitters for fundraisers, including President Bush.

He also ushered along transportation talks in Richmond this year, warning the party's warring factions that if they did not hash out their differences, Democrats would label them incompetent in the November elections.

"He has done more in six months than other chairman have done in four years," said James Rich, chairman of the 10th Congressional District Republican Committee.

Democrats say the primaries — which pitted anti-tax conservatives against moderate incumbents — showed that even Mr. Gillespie could not iron out the party's ongoing philosophical divide over fiscal responsibility.

"Gillespie's failure to unite Republicans has created a Republican primary season marked by infighting," said Amy Reger, spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party. "Instead of talking about the issues and their vision for Virginia, Republican incumbents have been forced to defend themselves from friendly fire and charges of being a 'RINO,' or 'Republican in name only.' "

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