As Rove Departs, President Again Turns to Gillespie

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 16, 2007

CRAWFORD, Tex., Aug. 15 -- When George W. Bush needed a communications adviser during the 2000 Florida recount, which determined whether he would be president, he turned to Ed Gillespie. When Bush needed someone to shepherd two of his Supreme Court nominees, he again called on Gillespie. And when longtime confidant and counselor Dan Bartlett stepped down this summer, Bush brought Gillespie to the White House.

Now, with the departure of Karl Rove, the president's closest adviser, Gillespie, 46, a former lobbyist and Republican National Committee chairman, has once again been asked to help fill the void.

White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten has said that he plans to divide Rove's broad political and policymaking duties -- and the 60 or so White House staffers who report to him -- among several top aides. But Bolten has yet to decide how to distribute Rove's responsibilities.

Still, it appears that Gillespie will emerge as the first among equals. He is likely to be called on to handle political strategy and message management for the president, becoming the dominant voice in determining where and how often Bush appears and what he says during the final 17 months of his tenure.

"Ed has a wealth of experience, and he has done a lot of things with the White House and for the White House," said former senator Dan Coats (R-Ind.), a lobbyist who has worked with Gillespie. "There is certainly a comfort level there with the president."

White House officials emphasized that Gillespie is not expected to take on the fundraising or nitty-gritty political chores that would put him in the midst of partisan battles with increasingly aggressive congressional Democrats. Nor will Gillespie have responsibility for the White House political affairs shop, which stands accused of politicizing ordinary government functions in a way that no other administration had.

Gillespie played down his role in replacing Rove. "It will be a challenge for others to step up and fill that void," he said. ". . . People will pick up parts of his job. Those of us who remain will have to step up."

As Bush moves toward the final phase of his presidency, it is clear that many of the administration's biggest ambitions -- broad proposals that were a Rove hallmark -- have been largely squelched. Rather than pushing initiatives such as overhauling immigration laws or remaking Social Security, the president is focused on trying to stabilize the situation in Iraq and fending off congressional efforts to force a troop withdrawal, while tussling with Democrats over budget and tax priorities.

"Right now, the Bush administration is in a reactive mode," said George C. Edwards III, a scholar on the presidency at Texas A&M University. "It is reacting to what happens in Iraq, to what Democrats do on the Hill. Strategic sense is always valuable, but it is less important if you are not pushing your own initiatives."

Gillespie is regarded as a fierce partisan, but he does not stoke emotions in the same way as Rove. As an aide to then-House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), Gillespie developed a reputation as one of the capital's top Republican strategists, with a wealth of connections in the news media, on Capitol Hill and with GOP activists across the country.

"Ed is very smart, hardworking and has a great personality," said Ken Mehlman, who succeeded Gillespie as the RNC chairman in 2005. "He is respected among people on the Hill whom the president needs to get his agenda through. He brings a lot of assets to the table."

Gillespie teamed up with Clinton administration counsel Jack Quinn to form the lobbying firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates, ran Elizabeth Dole's 2002 Senate campaign in North Carolina, and served as chairman of the Virginia Republican Party.

Since coming to the White House full time in late June, Gillespie has focused on trying to fine-tune the president's message in hopes of creating more impact and helping Bush raise his dismal approval ratings.

One change prompted by Gillespie is for Bush to offer more specifics when he talks about the biggest issue of his presidency: Iraq.

A speech that Bush delivered in Charleston, S.C., last month, in which he declassified some judgments made in intelligence reports to argue that the group al-Qaeda in Iraq was the same as the larger al-Qaeda network, was part of that effort. Broader speeches diluted Bush's message, Gillespie and other aides concluded. By focusing speeches on a single argument, such as al-Qaeda's connections in Iraq, aides hope to sharpen the president's influence on the public debate.

While Rove wanted the president to appear before the public almost every day, Gillespie wants Bush to deliver speeches less frequently.

Said Kevin Sullivan, the White House communications director: "Ed wants fewer speeches but speeches that are more impactful."

Staff writer Peter Baker in Washington contributed to this report.

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