If those attending yesterday's annual Republican "Pep Rally Breakfast" in Fairfax County did not pay much mind to the scrum of protesters outside, all they had to do was take a seat and flip open the program to see what all the ruckus was about.
There it was, smack in the middle of the first page: The man scheduled to deliver the keynote address in support of Virginia gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore would be Karl Rove, the White House senior adviser who is embroiled in the investigation of a leak that revealed the name of a CIA operative. Tickets were hot. The press was barred.
But soon after party activists sat down inside the ballroom of the Sheraton Premiere at Tysons Corner, it was announced that Rove had been scratched from the lineup. No detailed reason was given. The 300 breakfasters listened instead to Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
For the Republicans, the missed opportunity to see Rove -- one day after he appeared for the fourth time in front of a federal grand jury investigating the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name in 2003 -- triggered responses ranging from disappointment to indifference. Many of the local party loyalists shrugged off the last-minute switch, saying the investigation is meritless, or that Mehlman, who earned fame as Bush's campaign manager in 2004, was equally galvanizing.
Kilgore, who was introduced as a speaker by Mehlman during the program, didn't seem bothered that Rove couldn't make it, nor did he care to know why. "I was coming anyway, regardless. I like Ken Mehlman, too," he said as he was leaving during the middle of the fundraiser to attend a football game. Rove, he said, "has been a big help."
Eric A. Lundberg, chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, said Rove's office contacted him Friday to cancel because of a "scheduling conflict."
Allen Abney, a White House spokesman, said that closing the fundraiser to the press was standard for many such events. "I wouldn't read too much into it," he said. Reporters were eventually admitted.
Lundberg said he called law enforcement authorities to ensure that the protesters -- who were brandishing anti-Rove signs in front of a Cadillac and Hummer dealership near the hotel's entrance -- were not causing problems for the hotel or the event.
In his speech, Kilgore was feisty, defending his stand against spending public money to help illegal immigrants and touting his recent ads criticizing his Democratic opponent, Timothy M. Kaine, for his stand on the death penalty. He said the "liberal editorial boards" of newspapers are denouncing his advertisements because "the truth hurts."
Kilgore also said that he would have "sprung for the airfare" had he known in advance that Kaine was inviting former president Bill Clinton to two fundraisers in Virginia.
Gwen Cody, a state delegate in the 1980s who is now a real estate agent, said she was disappointed when it was announced that Rove would not be there, because she has been following the news about him. "He's been a busy man, appearing before the you-know-what," she said. "But I just wanted to see the man who is so close to the president."