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Midterm Vote May Define Rove's Legacy

Some strategists see the Nov. 7 vote as a referendum on Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove's polarizing brand of politics.
Some strategists see the Nov. 7 vote as a referendum on Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove's polarizing brand of politics. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Getty Images)

And when he does show up to speak, as at the annual dinner of the Erie County Republican Party earlier this month in Buffalo, Rove is greeted like a visitor from Hollywood. Rove worked the room, posing for pictures, signing programs and making small talk with hundreds of GOP faithful, none of whom seemed disappointed that a deputy White House chief of staff was a last-minute substitute for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The trip was arranged at the behest of embattled Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Republican campaign committee. Before the speech, Reynolds said, he made sure Rove inspected the damage from an unexpected snowstorm and received a briefing from Federal Emergency Management Agency officials. A few days later, Bush declared a federal emergency, making the city eligible for up to $200 million in disaster aid.

The White House says Rove had nothing to do with the designation, but Reynolds was clearly happy with the visit. "He has recognized that all politics is local," Reynolds said. Referring to Rove's overnight visit in the middle of a busy campaign season, he said, "The guy did a real favor for me."

The flip side of adulation is paranoia. Many Democrats are convinced Rove has some trick up his sleeve -- Osama bin Laden in the freezer, perhaps, ready for release just before Election Day -- that will save the Republicans from electoral disaster this fall.

"Karl is an absolute figure of fascination," said Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, which hosted Rove at its annual "Ideas Festival" this summer. "What stuns people who don't know him is how personally charming he is, especially people who consider him the devil or a strange genius."

Isaacson said Rove not only answered questions for close to 90 minutes before a packed auditorium but also bantered for hours afterward with the high-powered attendees from the worlds of policy, politics and big business. For 40 minutes, he said, Rove engaged in the fine points of stem cell research with Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr. "It always astonishes me that he knows more details about policy than anyone else -- that's the source of his strength," said Isaacson, who has also dealt with Rove extensively on issues of Louisiana reconstruction.

Rove was formally in charge of White House policy until this past spring, when he gave up the portfolio as part of a reshuffling of responsibilities engineered by Bolten. The shake-up was widely seen in Washington as a rebuke to Rove, though Bolten said he wanted to free up his friend for the big strategic thinking and politics he believes he does best.

Rove reads and makes comments on virtually everything the president is slated to say, plays a pivotal role in shaping the overall White House message and still plays an influential role on policy, according to Bolten. His decades-old relationship with the president appears strong and deep, as the two confer every day, sometimes multiple times, on political developments and other issues. He works closely with Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman to coordinate strategy, resource decisions and get-out-the vote efforts.

Bolten, who says he holds only Bush in higher regard than Rove, said he felt that when he took over this spring, Rove's portfolio, "even with his extraordinary abilities, would be unmanageable, especially going into a campaign season." Being in charge of the policy process, he said, requires a more neutral hand.

Rove "has very strongly held views," Bolten said. "He's best when he's liberated to assert his views and explain why."

Soon after the shake-up, Rove was relieved of what was probably an even bigger distraction -- the long-running investigation by Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald into his role in the outing of the name of a CIA agent. Though Fitzgerald cleared Rove, many conservatives believe the investigation played a role in the drift of the second Bush term.

"Rove has been much weaker in the last year and a half, in large measure because of Fitzgerald, and Bush has not been as politically successful," said William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard. Kristol voiced worry that moderates will try to "scapegoat" Rove after the election.

Associates say Rove is privately frustrated that individual candidates have not been more aggressive in drawing contrasts with Democrats on national security. In Buffalo, Rove dished out red meat with relish, pausing in the middle of an attack on Democrats for their votes against Bush's anti-terrorism policies to needle Senate Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid for a recent controversy in Nevada. "You may have read about his land swaps," Rove noted dryly.

Rove sarcastically questioned Rep. John P. Murtha's plan for pulling troops out of Iraq and creating a rapid-response force to deal with contingencies in the Middle East, possibly at the American base in Okinawa. "I am from Texas -- I am a simple boy," Rove joked, before noting that Okinawa is close to 5,000 miles from Baghdad.

"It is foolishness to suggest that this is a real plan for America," Rove said. "The real plan is this: Fight, beat 'em, win."

But there is little evidence that White House political efforts on Iraq have worked as Rove had hoped. Rove this summer signaled his desire that the war could be neutralized or even turned into an asset for Republican candidates who cast Democrats as defeatist. Instead, many candidates have been distancing themselves from Bush on the war. And while Bush in 2004 showed he could lose independent voters and still win the election, this year's polls show swing voters even more powerfully against the GOP.

"It has been clear for a long time that the independents are consolidating a view that is very anti-the-Bush-administration, very anti-the-Iraq-war," said Ruy Teixeira, a joint fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation. "Maybe they were believing their press clippings that all they need is their base."

Rove voices impatience with the notion that his own reputation is on the ballot. "I understand some will see the election as a judgment on me," he said. "But the fact of the matter is that, look what has been set in motion -- a broader, deeper, strengthened Republican Party, and with an emphasis on grass-roots neighbor-to-neighbor politics, is going to continue."

While Rove's confidence in the midterms does not waver, he said the conservative changes that Bush has promoted do not hinge on just one election: "1938 was a huge wipeout for the Democrats -- do you think that was the end of the New Deal?"

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