WASHINGTON — The chairmen of the nation's two major political parties faced off at their old stomping grounds March 18.

Ed Gillespie and Terry McAuliffe, who head the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee, respectively — and both alumni of the Catholic University of America — debated at a forum on the D.C. campus.

When Gillespie became chairman of the Republican National Committee last summer, it marked the first time the two party heads hailed from the same school. McAuliffe has been chairman of the Democratic National Committee since 2001. Gillespie graduated from Catholic University in 1983, four years after McAuliffe.

The debate was moderated by George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC's Sunday show “This Week” and a one-time spokesman for the Clinton administration.

C-SPAN aired the těte-à-těte live on cable and Internet. The Washington Post write-up the next morning dubbed it “Eddie ‘The Kid’ Gillespie vs. Terry ‘The Terror’ McAuliffe” in a “post-St. Paddy's Day smack-down of two Irish scrap-pers.”

Pondering how two people who went to the same school could come out leading two different political parties, Gillespie quipped, “Clearly, I got the better professors.”

McAuliffe, for his part, remarked that he would be the “the second Democratic chairman to make sure that a presidential candidate with the initials ‘JFK’ gets elected,” referring to his party's presumptive nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Actually, John Bailey, who graduated from Catholic University in 1926, was appointed Democratic National Committee chairman after John F. Kennedy's inauguration.

The first half-hour of the hour-long Gillespie-McAuliffe debate focused on the war on terror and foreign policy, the second on domestic policy and politics.

Addressing a question on “the Catholic vote,” the chairmen sounded similar notes on the ability to provide for one's family. However, the parties’ differences on policy such as tax relief and moral issues, notably abortion and homosexual marriage, became clear.

Gillespie pointed out that “Catholics tend to oppose the heinous practice of partial-birth abortion.” McAuliffe referred to partial-birth abortion and marriage as “wedge issues” meant to divide.

Picking Winners

“I'd say it was a high-scoring game, not too many fouls, with a close win for the Republicans,” Dennis Coyle, professor of politics at Catholic University, said of the debate.

“I thought Ed Gillespie came across best — warmer, good sense of humor and very quick on his feet, while Terry McAuliffe seemed a little more strident, a little more contrived,” he said. “But both presented their parties’ views very ably, had some clever lines and good-natured banter and generally did address the tough questions.”

Fellow politics professor John Kenneth White, author of The Values Divide: American Politics and Culture in Transition, said, “I thought the debate was a very nice preview of what the entire country will see come October. The differences between the two parties and their candidates are profound on almost every issue. This year, the ‘party gap’ will rival all the other ones we used to talk about — e.g. gender, race, etc.”

Both the College Democrats and Republicans held rallies for their respective chairman on campus prior to the event and used the occasion to register voters.

“Over the last couple weeks and months I have seen a steady increase of people becoming interested [in politics],” said Brendan Martin, head of the College Democrats. “[Students] are registering to vote and becoming educated on the issues.”

Both chairmen emphasized to the audience of 800 people the importance of young voters’ participation in the political process.

“College grads literally determine who the next president of the United States will be,” McAuliffe said in an interview with the campus newspaper, The Tower.

Gillespie, a week away from an MTV-Republican National Committee get-out-the-vote effort, emphasized the GOP's efforts to rally college students for the November election, pointing out that committee “polling data show that 18-to 25-year-olds are more favorable toward Bush and the Republican Party. … It's a very good demographic for us.”

Catholic U. Influence?

The Gillespie-McAuliffe Catholic University party monopoly suggests the potential for the university, the only institution of higher education chartered by the country's bishops, and, by extension, possibilities for Catholics in Washington, D.C.

“It does point out how involved many CUA grads are in Washington politics and the great opportunities to build connections, be part of the political scene here and move into satisfying careers,” politics professor Coyle said. “Politics is fun and potentially uplifting, and they conveyed that. [Gillespie and McAuliffe] were so much like our students, I could see them sitting in [constitutional law class] debating the cases.”

“I am not surprised [that both party chairmen are Catholic University alumni] because the politics department is very strong and I think the program is nicely suited to students interested in real politics,” said Mark Rozell, chairman of the department of politics at Catholic University. “We have avoided some of the academic fashions, especially behavioral studies, and the result is that our students see the relevance of what we teach to the real political world.”

“Not surprisingly, our influence is in part an accident of geography,” he admitted. “We are … a mere two metro stops from Capitol Hill. Thus, many of our students interested in politics come here partially because of the D.C. location. So we begin with a core of highly politically interested students.”

“The first semester that I taught at CUA I instructed a class on the U.S. Congress,” Rozell remembered. “The first day in a large class I asked the students if anyone was interning on the Hill. I would say fully 40% of the students raised their hands.

“Many of my politics students intern somewhere in D.C. while working toward their degrees. These students have an immediate, early advantage in launching their careers in Washington as a result. We also run an off-campus master's program in congressional studies, which is quite unique. The courses are taught in the evenings on Capitol Hill and are geared toward current Hill employees. Thus, we have many current full-time Hill employees taking our graduate courses, and these students become a part of our alumni group at the Capitol.”

Graduates of Catholic University of America not only go on to work on political staffs — they run for office themselves as well. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, for example, is a graduate, as is Martin O'Malley, Democratic mayor of Baltimore.

Douglas Kmiec, a former official under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, is former dean of Catholic University's Columbus School of Law.

“My sense is Washington is open to, and in some ways yearning for, a strong, Catholic voice,” he told the Register at the end of his tenure last summer. “At a time when so much of the culture is in a tailspin, pressed on all sides to be trendy or faddish, the Catholic perspective has a clarion quality of seeking truth anchored in the created, human being and precepts that are more long-lasting and tangible, directed at the human good, whichever party may be seeking to advance it.”

Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online. She is a graduate of Catholic University and majored in politics.