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Inside Politics

GOP chief expects close fall contest

Gillespie says election will be decided on a mix of issues

Ed Gillespie:
Ed Gillespie: "We're preparing for a very close contest."

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Ed Gillespie
Republican National Committee
George W. Bush

(CNN) -- Despite an improving economy and President Bush's strong poll numbers, Republicans expect a tight race this fall, the chairman of the Republican National Committee said Sunday.

"We're preparing for a very close contest. We expect something to be more like 2000 than 1984 or 1972," Ed Gillespie said in an interview on ABC's "This Week."

The 1972 and 1984 presidential elections were landslide Republican wins. In 2000, Bush won the electoral vote but lost the popular vote.

"If you look at the party identification and how voters identify themselves, the parties are just about at parity," Gillespie said.

Gillespie also said he expects the race will be decided on a mix of issues, rather than becoming a referendum on Bush's handling of national security in a time of war and terrorism.

"I think this is going to be an election about national security, obviously -- homeland security, too -- but also on the economy," he said. "I think all three of those things are very much going to be in the mix."

The GOP leader also said voters will contrast Bush's economic policy, centered on tax cuts, with calls by the Democrats to repeal some or all of those cuts, which Gillespie said would amount to raising taxes.

"That's going to hinder job creation and, in fact, take us back to a time of slow economic growth," he said.

Gillespie also said the Republican Party "is as united today under George W. Bush as I have seen it since Ronald Reagan.

"We're going to pick off a whole lot more Democrats than they're going to be able to pick off Republicans" in other state and national elections held that day.

Gillespie weighed in on a contentious social issue that could become part of the fall campaign -- a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage being pushed by GOP conservative forces.

The issue gained steam in November when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down a ban on gay marriage and told lawmakers to rewrite the state's marriage laws.

To the chagrin of some social conservatives, Bush has not taken a public position on the amendment, though he opposes gay marriage.

All of the leading Democratic presidential candidates also oppose gay marriage, but they have said they oppose an amendment and support some form of civil union for gays and lesbians.

Gillespie said as he travels the country "you don't hear a big clamor out there" for the amendment.

He said opinion is divided on whether the federal Defense of Marriage Act will "protect" states from having to recognize gay marriages or civil unions performed in states where they are legal.

"I believe that if people look at this, determine that the Defense of Marriage Act is not strong enough to withstand a challenge in various states ... then they should support that amendment," he said.

Gillespie said that "if gay activists try to take the Massachusetts court ruling and nationalize the government sanction of gay marriage, I suspect it will be an issue" in the fall.

The GOP chairman also offered his assessments of some of the leading Democratic candidates:

• On Wesley Clark: "I think his disadvantage is that he doesn't seem to know who he is and he doesn't know what his policies are."

• On John Edwards: "A very smooth-talking trial lawyer and handsome devil, I've got to say."

• On Howard Dean: "[He] obviously has a lot of intensity, and that intensity translates to his voters. ... But I also think that intensity veers into anger and causes him to say some reckless things."

• On John Kerry: "He enjoys the benefit of the strong support of a lot in the Democratic Party establishment. ... I do think he made the case that he's strong on national security, but if you look at his record, it doesn't support that."

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