A few months before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Karl Rove held clinics for White House officials in which he laid out what amounted to his early game plan for reelecting President Bush in 2004: improving the party's performance among blacks, Hispanics, Roman Catholics, union households and the "wired workers" of the technology world.
Bush had won about 8 percent of the African American vote in 2000, and Rove insisted that number needed to be pushed higher.
His Office of Strategic Initiatives, a creation that is known around the West Wing as "Strategery," handed out colorful laminated cards so that aides could remember their goals.
Those PowerPoint presentations in the infancy of Bush's presidency were an early indication that, although his 2000 campaign had many architects, Rove alone among staffers would bear ultimate credit or blame for the outcome of the 2004 election.
Back then, Rove did not strive simply to produce a convincing victory but to create a permanent Republican majority.
Now, two weeks before the election, the Bush-Cheney campaign would be happy to eke out the barest, skin-of-the-teeth majority, and aims to cobble it together by turning out every last evangelical Christian, gun owner, rancher and home schooler -- reliable Republicans all. It looks like the opposite of Rove's original dream.
Polls show the incumbent in a dead-even race, and a majority of voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Facing those bleak facts, well-known Republicans are quietly wondering whether Rove's luck has finally run out. So far, most believe he will wind up making a winner of a troublesome hand that he largely dealt himself.
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Rove had to trim his hopes for realigning party politics because of the way the president handled Iraq, and because Bush made little effort on issues, such as the environment, that might have attracted more traditionally Democratic constituencies. Instead, Bush catered to conservatives on everything from support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage to constant talk about tax cuts. The main critique of the Rove strategy, from inside and outside his party, is that the White House governed in a divisive way, when Bush could have used his popularity after the terrorist attacks to reach out to swing voters and even to African Americans.
Republicans would not discuss the issue on the record because they said they hope Bush will win, and Rove's power makes them hesitant to cross him. "It befuddles me," said one Republican official working with the campaign. "If they had never had 9/11, you could understand being where we are, because you could say [Bush] never got out from under the cloud of the disputed election. But they had an opportunity no president gets."
Still, if Rove is the man whom many hold accountable for Bush's current predicament, he is also the one who they most believe has the skill to get him out. Rove, who holds the deceptively bland title of senior adviser to the president, has the broadest reach and most power of any official in the West Wing. But he also oversees every detail of the ostensibly separate, $259 million Bush-Cheney campaign, from staffing the campaign with his young loyalists rather than veteran Republicans, to monitoring small-newspaper clippings around the country.
Ralph Reed, who is the Bush-Cheney campaign's Southeast chairman and has worked on seven presidential campaigns, said Rove has a unique ability to "see the importance of emerging constituencies in the same way that, say, Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in the rise of the union vote and the transformation of the minority vote."
"He understands that politics is shaped by broad demographic forces, such as the aging of a population, immigration, rising ethnic groups, unionization, religious belief," Reed said of Rove.
Rove, a master of political history and minutiae, has cultivated an aura of mystery, rarely giving on-the-record interviews and doing little to undermine the myth that he is responsible for everything that occurs in the executive branch. In the view of some supporters, the perception that he is "Bush's Brain," as a 2003 biography of him was titled, has undermined the president.
In a White House where insularity is a trademark, Rove is a voracious e-mailer, constantly in touch with Republican and conservative establishments nationwide. He has been known to use his BlackBerry wireless device in bed and while driving. He had one of the earliest experimental e-mail programs and is fond of technological innovations that help slice and dice information about individual potential voters. In 2000, he was excited about a database of snowmobile registrants. This year, he took a broader look at the Democrats' idea of NASCAR dads and ordered a systematic focus on "NASCAR moms."