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Election 2008: Karl Rove on Campaign Strategy

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Karl Rove
Chief Strategist to 2000, 2004 Bush Campaigns; Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff
Wednesday, May 7, 2008; 11:00 AM

Karl Rove, chief strategist in President Bush's successful 2000 and 2004 campaigns and a former deputy chief of staff at the White House, was online Wednesday, May 7 at noon ET to examine the results of the Indiana and North Carolina primaries and critique the campaigns of the three remaining 2008 presidential candidates.

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The transcript follows.

Rove is an informal adviser to the McCain campaign and contributes to Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News. Prior to working on the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, Rove worked on dozens of state and national races and was a pioneer in direct-mail political efforts.

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Karl Rove: Give me a little bit of slack, I've had three hours of sleep after last night's excitement.

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Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Where would the hero of your youth, Richard Nixon, fit in the modern Bush/Cheney GOP?

Karl Rove: Nixon was a Republican President, but Barry Goldwater probably was the hero of my youth. Nixon was a modernizer and coalition builder who brought together the disparate parts of the party and brought in outsiders with the Philadelphia plan and the outreach to China. "As our cause is anew, so must we think and act anew." was their motto for the '68 convention.

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Naperville, Ill.: You were a pretty successful political strategist. It seems like more or less conceding the caucus states to Obama has got to go down in history as one of the greatest political blunders of all time. What do you think of Hillary Clinton's campaign strategy?

Karl Rove: I think it has been appallingly poor. You pick out a critical example, her failure to contest the caucus states. In New Hampshire, 300,000 Democrats distributed 22 delegates to the convention. It took billions by all the candidates to contest that state. Idaho on the other hand gave out 18 delegates based on 20,000 votes and took probably tens of thousands from the Obama campaign.

Not only the caucus states, however. I still don't understand why she let Obama base his campaign on two things she could have taken away from him early on. The first theme was that he wanted to bring Republicans and Democrats together, but his thin record shows little evidence of this, while her record shows considerable efforts in the Senate. The other issue she let him get away with was to suggest the "fierce urgency of now" requires new leadership. She's been willing to jump in the middle of tough legislative fights, while Obama has been AWOL on most of these fights.

My theory is that she was afraid of the Netroots and how they'd react if she emphasized these centrist themes, and so she allowed him to get traction when it was her record, not his, that would have provided a firm foundation for these themes.

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Washington: Very brave of you to show up -- thanks. Do you think that the current political climate portends a permanent Democratic majority? This is, of course, a joke. But could you please comment on the political climate of the day (party identification, changing demographics, etc.) as it compares to what you saw in 2000? 2008 figures to be a Democratic year, but will it be followed by a Democratic decade, or will it be a temporary backlash to an unpopular administration?

Karl Rove: Nothing is permanent in politics -- the question is whether there will be a durable majority. While the environment is bad for Republicans this year, McCain is very competitive with both Democrats, leading Obama and only recently falling behind Clinton in state-by-state polls. I expect the two parties' leaders to trade places in standings several times this fall, it'll be a very competitive election.

And appearing on the Internet doesn't require bravery, just a free block of time.

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Washington: In October 2006, you told NPR that "the math" which you were "entitled to" showed Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate in the upcoming congressional elections. How was this math so wrong?

Karl Rove: First of all there were more than 80 million votes cast in the House races, and the 15 closest races were settled by 85,000 votes. The 2006 election, while bad for the GOP, was an average off-year election. Republicans lost 30 House seats and 6 Senate seats. It was a very close fight, a very close election, and a shift of 45,000 votes would have had a House majority and a shift of some 1,800 votes would have had a Republican Senate.

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Washington: What's your advice to John McCain about embracing or distancing himself from President Bush?

Karl Rove: He should do neither. He should define himself. To distance or embrace would be to choose someone else's path as opposed to defining his own and would be seen as calculation either way. As he defines himself he must have appropriate ways to differentiate himself from this administration. This is the task of any candidate running for president with an incumbent in the office. The American people are prospective in these elections, not retrospective. Differentiating yourself is seen as a natural expression of who you are and what you believe.

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Portland, Ore.: John McCain is the Republican nominee, yet he's failing to break 75 percent-80 percent of the vote in primary after primary. Is this typical of past elections?

Karl Rove: It's a little atypical, but not a lot. Turnout in these primaries is low because the contest is over, so turnout is driven by local contests. If you look at the national polling data in individual states, he has unified the Republican Party and is at or ahead of where Bush was in 2000. However, McCain does have an enthusiasm gap. The measurements available to us shows he trails the enthusiasm among Democrats, which he has to work on. These votes for Huckaback or Paul or others who remain on ballots is a reflection of this. But there are twice as many Democrats who defect to McCain as Republicans who defect to Obama and roughly three times as many defecting from Clinton as defect from McCain.

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Hamilton, Bermuda: Prediction time. How many seats will the GOP gain or lose in each house of Congress in November?

Karl Rove: Republicans will lose seats in the Senate and have a shot at picking up a few seats in the House, but it's too premature for me to forecast.

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New Orleans: By looking at the demographics of who voted for Obama and Clinton yesterday, which do you believe would be easier for McCain to defeat in November?

Karl Rove: Again, I think it's premature to answer that because both the candidates have flaws, and in order to exploit them you have to have an adroit candidate whose profile allows him to take advantage of those. Clinton's flaws are well known; Obama has major problems with blue-collar working class whites who are economically populist and socially conservative. This has grown in the contest to the point where in Indiana and North Carolina, less than half of Clinton supporters saying they were willing to vote for Obama in November, with the rest saying they'd vote for McCain or sit the election out.

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Columbus, Ohio: You boldly predicted that Bush's approval ratings would rebound -- instead he is, according to Gallup, the most unpopular president in history. Will you finally admit that your vision for this nation has been overwhelmingly rejected by the majority of the people?

Karl Rove: Get your facts right -- there are at least three president who had worse approval ratings, Truman, Johnson and Nixon. I'm absolutely positive history will be kind to this president, who made the right decisions in a difficult time for this nation.

And what about those terribly low ratings for the Democratic Congress, which I suspect you're enormously proud of.

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Atlanta: The Clintons have loaned Hillary's campaign a total of at least $11.4 million. Add this to her stated debt of $5 million and she's at least $16.4 million in the hole. A pundit last night speculated that Hillary's campaign will approach Obama's campaign and offer to drop out if Obama pays off her debt. Has this been done before? Would Obama have to pay this out of his personal wealth, or from his campaigns coffers?

Karl Rove: First of all, we don't know how much of her debt from the beginning of April is still there. It's not unusual for a candidate to end a primary campaign with a debt and then receive aid from the winner. The pay-off would have to be done by tapping the winner's fundraising lists, not out-of-pocket.

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Washington: When Hillary went negative against Barack, most voters and superdelegates rejected that tactic. Do you believe that McCain will still go negative, or will he shut down the 527 Swift-Boat attack machine you used against McCain and Kerry?

Karl Rove: I'll ignore the last sentence, but I do think McCain will make a good-faith effort to get Obama or Clinton to use federal funding and join with him in stopping 527 activity. Since both Democratic candidates are benefiting from multimillion independent expenditures on his behalf, I doubt either will be open to this. Obama already has seen his allies unleash ads against McCain without rebuking them.

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Bristol, R.I.: What is it about the U.S. Constitution that you don't like?

Karl Rove: I love the Constitution and carry a copy with me all the time. It is the sacred document of our nation, and I revere it.

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Plattsburgh, N.Y.: With independents expected to be such an important factor in November (the percentage of self-identifying independents is up 20 percent from 2004), what, if anything, does McCain risk by moving to the center to court them? Are his recent statements, such as those regarding the Supreme Court, evidence that he is moving to a base strategy against Obama?

Karl Rove: I disagree that judges and other McCain statements are base appeals. Judicial activism resonates across party lines and a wide part of the political spectrum, as do earmarks, another issue he's been using to attract independents. I'm not certain I agree with the phrase "moving to the center." Many independents defy any consistent ideological label. Any successful presidential candidate has to appeal to independents and disaffected members of the opposition party in order to win.

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Dallas: Just curious as to why you didn't wear your wedding ring during last night's broadcast. And why does Fox network fail to mention your relationship as an advisor to the McCain campaign? Thank you.

Karl Rove: When I left my house I accidentally left my ring in the shower. My wife has it and will give it back when we get back together tomorrow. Nice of you to notice, she'll be touched.

I'm not certain that I qualify as an advisor to McCain. I have friends at the campaign who occasionally ask me for reactions, and the Fox network is well aware of that, and similar contacts by some of their Democratic analysts.

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Tampa, Fla.: I hope I might ask you a tangentially-related question: How much would direct election of the president, by abolishing the Electoral College and using total popular vote, change the way campaigns are run? I'm not asking if we could or should do this, I'm just curious how much this would affect how presidential campaigns are run. With the concept of "swing states" gone, would advertising be spread more uniformly throughout the nation? Would national party organizations gain power at the expense of state party organizations? Would advertising focus more on broad issues and less on narrow policies? Would the ability to turn out the vote become more important than fundraising?

Karl Rove: It would change it dramatically. It would put a premium on large media market appearances where you could touch large numbers of your party's base numbers, and it would place a premium on regional appeals, as opposed to requiring a national focus for any successful candidate.

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Richmond, Va.: I'm curious about your thoughts on Obama's attempt to avoid mudslinging in this campaign. Do you think it can last? And what are your general views on the negativity in campaigns?

Karl Rove: I don't think Sen. Obama has avoided negativity, he simply has suggested he'll run a positive campaign and then with a very deft scalpel cut up his opponents. Consider last night when he said he'd be the only candidate telling the truth in this campaign, deftly taking a scalpel to Clinton's and McCain's reputations.

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Washington: Which states do you see as critical with respect to the November election -- and do those states vary depending on who the Democratic nominee turns out to be?

Karl Rove: Yes -- if Obama, he will have greater traction in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, but will be weaker in Pennsylvania through Wisconsin. But the map is gonna look largely familiar.

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Karl Rove: Thanks for your questions and I appreciate your interest.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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