Last week, I posited that Karl Rove and others were taking a hammer to the fringe-hugging candidate for the Republican nomination because they are trying to save the GOP from losing its bearings, in addition to the White House. But almost immediately after posting, I wondered if there was something else at work here. After reviewing Rove’s rhetorical meddling in the presidential sweepstakes, I became convinced that his real goal is to cement the Republican hold on Congress by taking over the Senate. Sunday’s New York Times story on conservative groups working outside the Republican National Committee (and free of the legal restrictions that govern it) only confirmed my suspicion.

Would Rove and others like the Oval Office to be filled with someone other than President Obama? Absolutely. But control of Congress is where it’s at.

Rove is famously known as “The Architect.” So dubbed by President George W. Bush upon his reelection in 2004. Thus, only a few others are as establishment as he is. That’s why it has been rather curious to watch him tear apart the leading contenders for the nomination.

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry openly flirted with birthers, Rove said, “You associate yourself with a nutty view like that, and you damage yourself....because it starts to marginalize you in the minds of some of the people whom you need in order to get the election.” He used a whiteboard on Fox News to list Herman Cain’s missteps vis-a-vis abortion, the right of return for Palestinians, not knowing what neo-conservatism is in the realm of foreign policy, his Afghan policy and the way he handled questions about his “9-9-9” plan. “The whole effect of this is to not create an image, I think, of him as being a flip-flopper,” Rove said. “I think it is to create an image of him as not being up to this task, and that’s really deadly for a presidential campaign.” Mitt Romney gets gentler treatment from Rove. But the definition of gentle is relative. Taking issue last week with Romney’s change of position on a collective bargaining issue in Ohio, Rove said, “Who didn’t think about this issue when they knew they were going to Ohio and going to a phone bank where they were calling people on behalf of proposition five? This happens in a campaign, but it’s problematic, because it adds to the narrative that he is not strong. The good news is, so far, he’s stronger than the rest of the pack.”

If the goal is to win back the White House, why would Rove — especially Rove — take swipes at his party’s potential nominee? And his punches are delivered in a manner tailor-made for the Obama campaign and its attendant Democratic 527s to clip-and-save for a devastating moment during the general election. As one top Republican told me last week, “The subtle question the noise of the campaign doesn’t answer is why do he and others continually bad mouth the field — not in grand broadsides, but with subtle swipes with a very sharp knife? Death by a thousand cuts still leaves you dead.”

This leads back to the question of what the real goal is. As the New York Times story notes, outside groups such as Rove’s American Crossroads have been meeting regularly and coordinating their efforts. Snatching back the White House is a priority. So, too, is keeping the House in GOP hands and wresting control of the Senate from the Democrats. Take over the Capitol, and two aims — one explicit, one implicit — will be met.

Even without the presidency, control of Congress would give Republicans and those groups that helped them control of the political agenda in a second Obama administration. But, more importantly, with control of Congress also comes control of the lobbying lucre that flows with it. Which is why the addition last month of Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.) to American Crossroads’s fundraising team is all the more interesting. He is a founder of the BGR Group, the powerhouse lobbying firm that bears his name and that of Ed Rogers, who now writes “The Insiders” blog for The Post with Carter Eskew.

Barbour took a swipe at the birther nonsense last week. “Any other issue that gets injected to the campaign is not good for the Republicans,” he said. “Republicans should want this election to be what American presidential elections have always been: a referendum on the incumbent’s record. Barack Obama cannot win a second term running on his record. Zero chance. So anybody who talks about anything else is off-subject.” But he’s had nothing but nice things to say about the front runners.

“If Herman Cain is our nominee against Barack Obama,” Barbour said earlier this month, “I think he’ll sweep the south.” He also said his wife would vote for Cain. Barbour called Perry’s signature economic policy, the flat tax, “good policy.” Yet, Barbour hasn’t been as forgiving of Romney. “We don’t want Romneycare in Mississippi,” he told Laura Ingraham earlier this month. Barbour also said at a Republican strategy forum recently that “Mitt is less conservative than most Republicans.”

This is death by a thousand cuts, all right. It’s also a great game of good-cop-bad-cop by Rove and Barbour. No matter what happens on Nov. 6, 2012, they will be perfectly positioned to exert an already ample supply of power and influence.