At 7:30 each morning, President Bush's senior staff gathers to discuss the important issues of the day -- Middle East peace, the Harriet Miers nomination, the latest hurricane bearing down on the coast. Everything, that is, except the issue on everyone's mind.
With special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald driving his CIA leak investigation toward an apparent conclusion, the White House now confronts the looming prospect that no one in the building is eager to address: a Bush presidency without Karl Rove. In a capital consumed by scandal speculation, most White House senior officials are no more privy than outsiders to the prosecutor's intentions. But the surreal silence in the Roosevelt Room each morning belies the nervous discussions racing elsewhere around the West Wing.
Out of the hushed hallway encounters and one-on-one conversations, several scenarios have begun to emerge if Rove or vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis Libby is indicted and forced out. Senior GOP officials are developing a public relations strategy to defend those accused of crimes and, more importantly, shield Bush from further damage, according to Republicans familiar with the plans. And to help steady a shaken White House, they say, the president might bring in trusted advisers such as budget director Joshua B. Bolten, lobbyist Ed Gillespie or party chairman Ken Mehlman.
These tentative discussions come at a time when White House senior officials are exploring staff changes to address broader structural problems that have bedeviled Bush's second term, according to Republicans who said they could speak candidly about internal deliberations only if they are not named. But it remains unclear whether Bush agrees that changes are needed and the uncertainty has unsettled his team.
"People are very demoralized and unhappy," a former administration official said. "The leak investigation is [part of it], but things were not happy before this took preeminence. It's just been a rough year. A lot has gotten done, but nothing is easy."
Bush implicitly acknowledged the distractions in answer to a reporter's question during a Rose Garden appearance with visiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday, while reassuring the public that he remained focused on the pressing matters of state facing his White House.
"There's some background noise here, a lot of chatter, a lot of speculation and opining," Bush said. "But the American people expect me to do my job, and I'm going to."
For a president and a White House accustomed to controlling their political circumstances in a one-party town, the culmination of the leak investigation represents another in a string of events beyond their grasp. Like Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq war and rising gasoline prices, there is little at the moment that Bush strategists can do to alter the political equation.
But the road that led them to this moment is paved with potholes that Bush aides privately concede they could have avoided, and many Republicans are examining the situation for deeper issues to address. From the failed effort to restructure Social Security to the uproar over the Miers nomination to the Supreme Court, Bush's second-term operation has been far more prone to mistakes than his first.
In the view of many Republicans, fatigue may be one factor affecting the once smooth-running White House. Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. gets up each day at 4:20 a.m., arrives at his office a little over an hour later, gets home between 8:30 and 9 p.m. and often still takes calls after that; he has been in his pressure-cooker job since Bush was inaugurated, longer than any chief of staff in decades. "He looks totally burned out," a Republican strategist said.
Others, including Rove, Bolten, counselor Dan Bartlett, senior adviser Michael J. Gerson and press secretary Scott McClellan, have been running at full tilt since 1999, when the Bush team began gearing up in Austin for the first campaign.
At the same time, the innermost circle has shrunk in the second term, mainly to Vice President Cheney, Card, Rove, Bartlett, Libby and, on foreign policy issues, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. Aides who joined the White House staff after last year's reelection, such as communications director Nicolle Devenish (who now goes by her married name, Nicolle Wallace), domestic policy adviser Claude Allen and political director Sara Taylor, have brought fresh perspectives and earned Bush's trust but do not share the long history with him that he values.
Many allies blame the insularity of his team for recent missteps, such as the Miers nomination. Even some sympathetic to her believe the vetting process broke down because as White House counsel she was so well known to the president that skeptical questions were not asked.
Some GOP officials outside the White House say they believe the president rejects the idea that there is anything fundamentally wrong with his presidency; others express concern that Bush has strayed so far from where he intended to be that it may require drastic action.
At the heart of all those discussions is Rove. With the deceptive title of deputy chief of staff, Rove runs much of the White House, including its guiding political strategy and many of its central policy initiatives. "Karl is the central nervous system right now, and that's obviously a big thing -- not only politically, but now he's in that big policy job," a former White House official said.
At the White House and among its close allies, discussion about Rove's fate is verboten -- in part out of fear and in part out of ignorance about what his legal vulnerability actually is. No one in the White House wants to talk about an indictment. As another former official said, "No one wants to believe anything's going to happen." Nor do people easily discuss other staff changes. "Anyone who talks about that kind of stuff should be shot," said a third Republican with close ties to the White House.
But, this Republican noted, "I am sure Karl and the president talk about it." And the assumption is Rove could not stay if indicted.
Without Rove, Bush likely would need more than one person to take his place, according to people close to the White House. Bolten, who served as deputy chief of staff in the first term and now heads the Office of Management and Budget, is widely deemed a savvy policy master who could assume a broader role. Gillespie, who shepherded the confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and advises Miers, had hoped to extricate himself even from this assignment, but colleagues said he would be a logical person to bring in for political strategy.
Mehlman, who was White House political director before becoming chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been a key adviser, although some colleagues worry that bringing in the party chief might send too political a message. Some close to the White House suggest Clay Johnson III, the deputy budget director who was Bush's chief of staff in the Texas governor's office, could be part of a reconstituted team. Attention has also focused on former White House counselor Karen P. Hughes, but she was just confirmed by the Senate as undersecretary of state and seems unlikely to leave.
Some strategists said Bush could accommodate the loss if he had to. "When Karen Hughes left, a lot of people said she's indispensable and impossible to replace and it might hurt the president in an election year," said Charles R. Black, a GOP lobbyist who advises the White House. "But Dan Bartlett and others stepped up, and no one missed a beat."
Mehlman said the president's problems would eventually be overshadowed by his broader agenda. "It's a mistake to allow the political headline of the moment to obscure the overall progress being made on a lot of important fronts," he said. "We're about to have a big debate about taxing and spending. Those are debates where we historically have done well and will this time."
Another former administration official said the key to the future for the White House will be restoring unity within the party. "Everyone in the Republican Party needs to figure out how to stick together and get things done in a constructive manner," he said. "That hides all sorts of fault lines."
Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.