Fall Elections Are Rove's Next Test

By Jim VandeHei and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 17, 2006

White House political strategist Karl Rove emerges from the CIA leak case with his reputation scuffed, his power slightly diminished, and Republicans counting on him, once again, to help rescue their House and Senate majorities.

Described by friends as relieved and recharged after getting the news this week that he will not be indicted in the leak probe, Rove now faces another verdict this fall over his abilities as a political strategist and his ambition to build an enduring GOP majority.

Rove's reputation as a campaign operative is unparalleled -- he is hailed by President Bush as the architect of his 2004 reelection -- but his judgment in melding politics and policy into an effective governing strategy has been called into question in the president's second term. Bush endured the worst stretch of his presidency when Rove's powers inside the White House were at their peak.

Not all of the problems can be laid at Rove's feet, given how much the Iraq war has damaged the president's standing. But Rove was the conceptual brains and chief cheerleader behind what turned into the biggest domestic policy failure of Bush's presidency -- the effort to introduce personal savings accounts into the Social Security program.

Republicans interviewed for this article also said they believed that the failure of others in the White House to check Rove's expanded powers contributed to missteps that they say were far less common during Bush's first term.

Now Rove has the freedom to concentrate on preserving the GOP majorities in Congress, and an opportunity to purge the mistakes of the past two years. Based on recent Rove speeches and interviews with senior GOP officials, his plan for the midterm elections echoes the strategy he plotted out in 2002 and 2004, adapted to a new and more difficult environment. He hopes to make the election a choice between the philosophies of the two parties, especially on national security, rather than a referendum on Bush's performance. He also aims to stoke the Republican base with such issues as tax cuts, same-sex marriage and judicial appointments. Rove declined to comment for this article.

For the first time since Bush became a national candidate, Rove faces a fractured Republican coalition, at odds over immigration and spending. Rove has been concentrating his energies, GOP officials said, on reuniting the party.

"The results of the 2006 election will be the final verdict of his standing with the president and his party," said Tad Devine, who was a senior strategist in the campaigns of Democratic presidential nominees Al Gore and John F. Kerry. "If the Republicans hold the House and Senate, Karl's stock will go up, and if they lose it, the cloud that hung over him for a long time will return."

Most Republicans and Democrats interviewed for this article said Rove's White House stature has been diminished only slightly, and perhaps only temporarily, by Bush's political problems and the leak probe. Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman, struggled to find the right superlative. "He is, he is, he is, well, Karl Rove," Gillespie said. And Democratic strategist Donnie Fowler called him the "shrewdest of his generation -- and the toughest."

The record, they say, speaks for itself: Rove was the architect of a series of victories for Bush -- the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, as well as the 2002 midterms -- that left Democrats demoralized and divided. While it might be Washington myth that Rove is responsible for all of Bush's wins -- after all, it was the president who executed the plans and earned the vote -- the balding Texan with the mischievous grin gets much of the credit in the eyes of Republicans and Democrats alike.

He also gets the blame when numbers go down. "Karl is rightly called a genius, and, like any genius, his can be big mistakes," said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). He said that Rove is the smartest political mind in the party today but that his efforts to "buy votes" from independents by expanding the education system and creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit in the first term are hurting Republicans badly today. "Those issues turned off the base," Feeney said.

The Social Security debate, however, was probably his biggest blunder, Republicans inside and outside the White House said. Fresh off the 2004 victory, Rove convinced Bush that an in-depth analysis of past second-term presidents showed the only way to succeed was to act quickly and boldly. Internally, Rove championed a plan to restructure Social Security by allowing younger Americans to put some of the their Social Security taxes into private accounts in exchange for a reduction in guaranteed benefits.

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