As Air Force One made its final approach to Andrews Air Force Base on Tuesday afternoon, White House senior adviser Karl Rove juggled a telephone, a pen and a piece of paper, anxiously copying down the first wave of exit polls that showed President Bush trailing John F. Kerry.
"I saw this look on his face and then the phone died," said White House communications director Dan Bartlett. "He said, 'Not good.' " It was, Bartlett added, "like a punch in the gut."
At that point, years of planning and preparation appeared in doubt. Skeptics in the Democratic and Republican parties believed the strategy created by Rove and the rest of Bush's team was about to come crashing down.
Had that happened, it would have put Bush in the history books with his father for having been denied a second term after achieving a 90 percent approval rating, and relegated Rove to the long list of strategists whose theories and assumptions have been undone by the voters.
"I was sick," Rove said in an interview as he talked about those moments on the president's plane. "But then angry when I started seeing the numbers. None of them made any sense."
Those exit polls, of course, turned out to be wrong, as many inside the Bush headquarters believed once they began to examine them in detail, and today Rove is celebrated by none other than the president as "the architect" of the reelection victory.
Admired, disparaged, respected and feared, Rove joins an elite cadre of political strategists who can claim two presidential victories. Bush's adviser can now look toward the goal he has pursued since he was an obscure direct-mail specialist in Texas: the creation of a durable Republican majority in Washington and across the country.
Building the Base, Bit by Bit
The reelection strategy was built on the belief that with U.S. forces in Iraq, the outcome there uncertain, and fighting terrorism still at the forefront of Bush's presidency, Bush had to shape and win the debate on national security and still contend with Democratic criticism that he had ignored domestic problems.
It was also designed around a plan to increase members of the electorate calling themselves Republicans. This has been described as a strategy aimed almost exclusively at energizing and mobilizing the GOP's conservative base. While social and religious conservatives played a significant role in the outcome, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said Bush's advisers also believed they could simultaneously "reach out to and expand the base and expand support among ticket-splitting swing voters."
John Weaver, a strategist for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who ended a longtime feud with Rove this year when Bush sought McCain's help, said Rove has moved closer to the goal of creating a Republican majority not by seeking one big realigning election, but by recognizing that political change often is incremental and using every election to get a little bit closer.
"He gets three feet here, three feet there, constantly eroding the other side and grabbing turf," Weaver said. "He has proved his point that you can expand the base, and not just among white males, without drifting or modifying either language or policy. I'm not sure it would work with any other candidate, at any other time. But it worked, and he proved the skeptics wrong."
Rove's assessment is that the 2004 election pushed the country away from deadlock, where it had come to rest after the disputed election four years ago. "We now clearly are not the country that was 49-49," he said. "We're now at 51-48 and may be trending to 51-47. It is incremental but small, persistent change. We saw it in 2002, and we saw it again this year. . . . It tells me we may be seeing part of a rolling realignment."
Bush's victory is likely to enlarge the myth of Rove, with all its layers and complexities, but the reality is that Bush's reelection was secured not by the design or execution of a single person but by a team.
That team included Mehlman, who executed the game plan with an extraordinary grasp of attention to detail, and chief strategist Matthew Dowd, who provided a stream of research on the state of the electorate that kept pessimists at bay and the campaign focused on the big picture rather than, as one insider put it, "chasing rabbits." Long ago, Dowd predicted a victory margin of close to three percentage points.