Gilchrest Faces Onslaught From Conservative Party Allies

Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican and decorated Vietnam Vet, has joined the ranks of some of his illustrious congressional colleagues by questioning whether invading Iraq is the best thing for the war against terror right now.

"We have more options than a unilateral U.S. invasion," he told Bringing in allies as well as Russia and China to put pressure on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to allow weapons inspectors into the country would be the more prudent strategy, he said.

"Of course we need unconditional allowance of weapons inspectors into Iraq," but the idea of an invasion "isn't needed today, or next week or in the coming months."

Having said that, Gilchrest, a moderate Republican from a largely Democratic state, added that he doesn't think Saddam and his possible ties to Al Qaeda terrorists held responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks should be left unchecked.

"If Saddam Hussein had a chance to fell a blow to the United States ... he wouldn't hesitate to do it," he said. "We cannot let Iraq become another haven for Al Qaeda."

The comments are starkly different from those delivered by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who came out with verbal guns blazing last week in favor of an invasion of Iraq. But it does match the cautionary words of retiring House Majority Leader Dick Armey, also of Texas, and Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel.

It's that cautious approach that may have earned the six-term Republican representative a primary challenge from his political right.

Attorney Dave Fischer, who comes into the race with an armload of conservative special interest endorsements, like the Club for Growth and the National Rifle Association, said Gilchrest is not properly representing the conservative 1st Congressional District, which stretches from the greater Baltimore area south and over to the Eastern shore.

"This is a safe Republican seat and it deserves a congressman who will vote like a Republican," Fischer said. "Frankly, I was shocked at how liberal [Gilchrest's] voting record is."

Fischer backers agree.

"He's the kind of guy who actually hurts the party," said Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, which has attacked Gilchrest for not being more vigilant on slowing spending and cutting taxes.

The Club for Growth will probably end up raising close to $150,000 for Fischer before the Sept. 10 primary, a sum that could hurt Gilchrest, who does not accept money from outside the district nor from political action committees.

But this attack doesn't seem to bother Gilchrest, who accuses the far-left and far-right of having "simplistic, mythical utopian ideologies that have no basis in reality."

Proud of being a "pragmatist," Gilchrest is one of the more independent voters in the House, a staunch defender of the environment and not a big fan of the National Rifle Association.

"I believe in gun rights for target shooting, sporting and defending oneself. But I also think we live in a dangerous society and there should be some way to screen out felons from getting guns," he said. "That's not what the NRA wants."

Because of the full-court press from conservatives, the Main Street Partnership, a group of moderate GOP members, is weighing in on the race for the first time ever.

"He's one of our own and we've decided to help," said Executive Director Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, adding that the conservative faction of the Republican Party is risking a House seat by dividing the party. She said since Gilchrest doesn't take outside money, they will be paying for direct mail solicitations in his district.

"Even though we're moderates, we're Republicans first and this is hurting the party," she said.

Gilchrest is also getting support from other Maryland Republican incumbents, including Reps. Connie Morella and Robert Ehrlich, who is running in a competitive race for governor against Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Morella called him a "true leader" in agricultural and land conservation issues, while Ehrlich called him a "close friend" whose "shared views far outweigh our differences."

Gilchrest, who is favored with 10-1 odds for re-election, according to the Campaign & Elections Political Oddsmaker, said he is confident that his work for the district will be remembered come Nov. 5, no matter who tries to discredit him.

"I think we've established a lot of credibility in our district and it won't be lightly dismissed by a relatively young, first-time politico coming out negative with a simplistic message," he said. "That doesn't strike a chord with everyday, real problems."