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Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Gillespie emerges as front-runner for Virginia state party chair
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie has emerged as the front-runner to become the next state GOP Chairman in Virginia, several informed Republican sources tell CNN.

Contacted Wednesday morning, Gillespie told CNN in a telephone interview, "I care about the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Republican Party and I want to help them both. The state parties are as important as the national party."

Gillespie said it was up to state Republicans to choose a new leader. But several GOP sources, including two actively involved in Virginia, said the veteran GOP operative was the clear favorite to lead a party increasingly concerned about Democratic gains -- and the prospect that a once reliably-red state could now fall into the blue column in the 2008 presidential race.

State republicans are likely to pick a new chairman next month; the current chairwoman announced after the midterm elections that she is stepping down.

The urgency stems from the defeat of GOP senator George Allen this year -- which came in the wake of last year's Democratic win in the governor's race.

"We have a bigger problem than we have cared to admit," said one of the GOP activists pushing for Gillespie to take over the state GOP. "Some of it is changing demographics, but some of it is us not doing the necessary work to build and expand."

Gillespie is a former democrat who switched to the GOP when a congressman he was working for more than a decade ago switched parties. He went on to become a top GOP aide and strategist on Capitol Hill, a top deputy at the RNC under former chairman Haley Barbour, and a top adviser to the bush white house political operation.

He also served as a senior adviser to the Allen senate campaign.

Republican activists in the state say they are also hearing talk Allen may run for governor in the next election, although two sources close to Allen suggested this was little more than "guessing and speculation" given Allen's recent statement indicating he would not disappear from the political scene once he leaves the senate in January.

Allen was governor before being elected to the senate.

-- CNN Senior National Correspondent John King
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