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Four More Years Attributed to Rove's Strategy

Others who played significant roles were Bartlett, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish, media adviser Mark McKinnon, rapid response chief Steve Schmidt, political director Terry Nelson, vice presidential advisers I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and Mary Matalin, and presidential confidante Karen Hughes. Many were regular members of a breakfast group at Rove's house where strategy was developed and great quantities of cholesterol consumed.

No small part of the credit, of course, goes to the president, the point man on the campaign trail and, Rove says, the one who established the broad outlines of the reelection strategy during a meeting with his chief adviser in December 2002 at his Texas ranch. The president also continually prodded his team to keep the pressure on Kerry throughout the campaign.

White House communications director Dan Bartlett, left, and Karl Rove don Halloween outfits mocking a recent hunting trip by Democrat John F. Kerry. Bush aides have seen Rove's goofy side, but he has been strict with anyone not fully supporting the president publicly. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- AP)

_____Live Discussion_____
Live, 2 p.m. ET: The Post's Mike Allen discusses White House senior adviser Karl Rove's campaign strategy.

Rove, who turns 54 at the end of the year, has a 30-year friendship and an unbreakable bond with Bush, the two having first met the day before Thanksgiving 1973. Their history put Rove at the center of the operation, serving as the link between the campaign and the White House and between the campaign advisers and the occupant of the Oval Office.

McKinnon once described Rove, in language of the Internet age, as having "more bandwidth" than any political strategist he had ever worked with, able to juggle many balls and capable of thinking strategically while never losing sight of, or interest in, tracking polls, voter registration data or the details of Kerry's health care plan.

After the president's victory, Rove earned praise even from some of those he bested. One Kerry adviser said: "I think Rove is an incredibly bright and effective and capable guy, and they clearly won. The last guy they need lessons from is me, who lost."

But another Democrat, still digesting a loss that seemed unlikely to Democrats when they first saw the exit polls, called him one of the meanest people in politics. Said Rove: "This is a town that runs on myths. That's one of the myths. The evil Rasputin Rove. There's nothing I can do about it. If you want to rage against the system, blame Rove."

Still, no one suggests that Rove does not play as hard as anyone around. GOP strategists have felt the Rove lash when they were perceived as straying in public from 100 percent support of the president, making them far less willing to talk openly about what they saw as problems with the strategy when the race was in doubt.

But those in the campaign said outsiders rarely see Rove in full, someone they say is generous in giving others credit, willing to listen to ideas and act on them, a cheerleader in times of trouble, able to accept mistakes and move on, and a man with a slightly goofy side.

Reporters traveling with Bush saw that goofy side in the waning days of the campaign. He popped into the press cabin one night wearing a surgical mask. "Dr. Rove is here," he announced. On Halloween night, Rove was among the most gleeful of Bush's senior staff members as they donned camouflage jackets and paraded down the front steps of Air Force One for cameras to poke fun at Kerry's duck-hunting foray.

Targeted GOP Recruitment

Rove said that when he and Bush first talked about a reelection strategy in December 2002, the president, anticipating a race that resembled 2000 in its closeness, laid out a series of requests. He wanted a strategy designed to enlarge GOP majorities in the House and Senate, not what he called a "lonely victory." He wanted more emphasis on grass-roots volunteers. And he told Rove he wanted a campaign about big things and big issues, not "mini ball," and finally said he wanted to leave the Republican Party "stronger, broader and better."

Democrats and others often described Bush's strategy as one designed primarily to energize and mobilize the GOP's conservative base, but Gillespie said, "You had to have energy in your base, but your base doesn't get you to 51 percent."

Mehlman noted that Bush increased his support among various groups: women, Roman Catholics, Latinos (although some people question the accuracy of the exit polls showing Bush with 44 percent of the Hispanic vote). Even among black voters, Bush increased his support by two percentage points.

Bush's advisers said one key to victory was the early decision to change the composition of the electorate by finding and registering more Republicans. "When I went to the RNC in July [2003], I asked Karl what was the most important thing I could do, and he said, 'Close the gap between registered Republicans and registered Democrats,' " Gillespie said. "We registered 3.4 million voters."

Bush's team did not go about this randomly. With considerable assistance from Dowd's research, the Bush operation sniffed out potential voters with precision-guided accuracy, particularly in fast-growing counties beyond the first ring of suburbs of major cities. The campaign used computer models and demographic files to locate probable GOP voters. "They looked at what they read, what they watch, what they spend money on," a party official said.

Once those people were identified, the RNC sought to register them, and the campaign used phone calls, mail and front-porch visits -- all with a message emphasizing the issues about which they cared most -- to encourage them to turn out for Bush. "We got a homogeneous group of new registered voters and stayed on them like dogs," another official said.

That combination -- careful identification of potential Bush voters and continuing contact with the help of a volunteer army that Mehlman said numbered 1.4 million people by Election Day -- helped Bush overcome what Democrats regard as their best-ever get-out-the-vote operation.

Many Democrats have seized on exit polls showing that 22 percent of voters said "moral values" were most important to them as evidence of what brought Bush the victory. But Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, in an analysis released yesterday, said he disagrees, noting that Bush had increased his support among nonregular churchgoers more than among churchgoers. "To focus on values misses the crucial point that this was the post-9/11 election, and the war on terror set the stage and the context for the choices many voters were making," Garin wrote.

'Where Real Power Is'

Rove declined to speculate on his next act. He is happily married, dotes on his teenage son and loves Texas. "I serve at the sufferance of the president and with the approval of my wife," he said.

But those around him expect he will stay at Bush's side for the foreseeable future. They note that his interest in policy is as deep as his interest in politics. "Karl sits at the intersection of politics and policy, and that's where real power is exercised in a White House," said a Republican official who works closely with him.

There are still many who question the Bush-Rove strategy, even after the latest success. They say Bush's style of governing from the right, with policies that push the conservative edge of the envelope, puts a ceiling on his and his party's ability to expand significantly more. Others say the Bush model will not survive after he leaves the presidency.

But some of those doubters are chastened by what happened Tuesday. The night before the election, one strategist, who asked for anonymity to be free with his opinions, predicted a Kerry victory. "It's a dumb plan," he said of the Bush campaign strategy. By midnight of election night, as first Florida fell to Bush and then his margin in Ohio mounted, another message arrived. It said, "On second thought . . ."

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