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Rove Trims Sails but Steers for Victory

Sen. John F. Kerry's Web site has copied many innovations from the Bush-Cheney site, including a feature that allows users to effortlessly e-mail pages to five friends.

Rove maintains loyalty partly by giving it and partly through fear -- several of his friends did not want to be quoted by name because they said if Rove saw their thoughts in the newspaper, they were not likely to be heard from again.

President Bush walks with top adviser Karl Rove, whose reelection plan called for massive fundraising and energizing the GOP's conservative base. (Charles Dharapak -- AP)

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Despite Rove's reputation as master of politics' darker side, the vision he outlined in 2001 had an element of high-mindedness: It depended on outreach to demographic groups the party had neglected. Bush's first address to a joint session of Congress said government should be "active" and "engaged," while still limited and not overbearing.

But it was also hardball: If Rove succeeded, he would have chipped away at enough traditional Democratic constituencies that his opponents would not be able to assemble a winning coalition.

Emphasizing the Base

On May 15, 2003, when Rove and others gave Bush a formal briefing about preparations for his campaign, the strategy looked very different than it did on the laminated cards. By then, the broad strokes of Bush's likely legacy were already clear: He was given credit for a stalwart response to the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, had turned a budget surplus into a massive deficit, had gone on the offensive against terrorism and had chosen to invade Iraq. A month earlier, Saddam Hussein's government had fallen. Two weeks before, Bush had declared the end of major combat. It was not yet clear that the United States might lose the peace in Iraq.

Rove's strategy, as described by officials who were briefed at the time, had two central pillars. One was raising $170 million or more for a campaign budget that he thought -- incorrectly it turns out -- would swamp the fundraising ability of the opposition. The other was to maximize the yield from Bush's "base," or core supporters, including fiscal and social conservatives, rural residents and small business owners. Rove would do this both by energizing these voters to turn out and using creative ways to get them to tap into their own networks to expand the base. Rove also put a priority on locking in suburban and exurban voters.

What might be called the Rove Doctrine of emphasizing the base grew partly out of the scarring experience of 2000. According to the calculations of Bush consultants, 4 million evangelical Christians stayed home, perhaps in part because of the final-weekend revelation that Bush had once been charged with driving under the influence of alcohol.

The officials said the base theory also stemmed from the calculation that there were more potential base voters available to Bush than there were swing voters, two-thirds of whom could be expected to go to the challenger.

Rove said he does not agree with describing the race as a base election. He said he views the nation as divided 50 percent for Bush, 47 percent for Kerry and 3 percent undecided, and said it is therefore safe to assume that Bush has already taken many traditional swing voters -- including African Americans, Latinos and women -- into his base.

Bush's aides insist that they also have sought independent voters through measures that were opposed by some sections of the base, including a prescription drug benefit for Medicare and a proposal to provide temporary legal status to undocumented workers. Reed describes the mission as an effort "to appeal to our core supporters without turning off swing voters."

But from the president's rhetoric to his choice of audiences to the efforts of the White House staff, the Rove-Bush focus on the base has been unmistakable, and -- along with Iraq -- will be a big part of the story of his triumph or loss. Democrats contend, and some Republicans fear, that Rove was attentive to the base for far too long, boxing Bush into a corner where he seems always on the attack in a way that may turn off swing voters.

A friend of Rove, who refused to be named, noted that because of the continuing bloodshed in Iraq, Rove has to contend with being "largely on defense on foreign policy."

"Rove's job is to be practical," the friend said. "The practical imperative is to reelect the president, and you do that by figuring out and implementing a strategy that's going to get you the most votes. You have to throw some of the broad goals out the window because you don't have time for them and you can't indulge them."

This friend said that if Bush is reelected, Rove "will try to develop strategies and employ tactics that reach out and appeal to demographic groups and bring them into the Republican Party."

By the accounts of some White House insiders, Rove did not push Bush to invade Iraq, although he said before the midterm elections of 2002 that Republicans should not be afraid to use the war on terrorism as their calling card, because voters instinctively trusted Democrats less on national-security issues.

"Rove wasn't going to let the liberal Democrats and their co-conspirators in the media take the war on terror away," the Rove friend said. "This is as legitimate an issue as the Cold War. When everybody was saying, 'Oh, you can't exploit it politically, you can't exploit it politically,' Karl went and ran those first ads that exploited it politically. And, by the way, those ads fundamentally began the campaign and created a basis for Bush to win in spite of what was going on in Iraq."

Divisiveness over Iraq is largely responsible for the polarized electorate, but another major factor was the president's Rove-engineered posture as a ferocious partisan in the 2002 elections, when he campaigned against Democratic senators, producing historic gains for the party in power but leaving the opposition little incentive to cooperate with him on legislation that might help him make good on his pre-presidency claim to being a uniter, not a divider.

"Karl saw it as an opportunity to make the Senate more Bush-friendly, but the downside was it made it more polarized," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in a telephone interview.

In Minnesota in mid-September, with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth tearing into Kerry and Democrats pushing new questions about Bush's National Guard service in an effort to temper his post-convention bounce, Rove appeared to recognize how far he was from his years-old ideal. "We're winning," he said. "But it's going to be an ugly 47 days."

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