Before there was Lee Atwater, there was Karl Rove.
Back in 1972, the 22-year-old Rove was a candidate for chairman of the College Republicans. The rambunctious Atwater was his Southern regional coordinator. For a week, they drove the blue highways of the South in a mustard-brown Ford Pinto, scouring the region for support, running out of gas and courting coeds.
"Somewhere between Tallahassee and some university in Alabama, we stopped for breakfast at 6 o'clock in the morning," Rove says as if it were just last month. "Atwater orders cornflakes and pours Tabasco sauce on them because he's lost his taste buds."
In a bitterly contested election, Rove defeated John T. "Terry" Dolan, who later headed the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), the organization that helped define the scorched-earth politics of the late 1970s.
Atwater rose to national prominence ahead of Rove, serving as presidential campaign manager for Gov. Bush's father in 1988 and later as chairman of the Republican National Committee until he died of a brain tumor. "We both cut our teeth at the same time," Rove says. "He rose much faster, much farther than I did."
Now it is Rove's turn. As Republican strategist Don Sipple sees it, "He's been working his entire career for this time, and so far he's been doing very well at it."
Rove is Bush's whirling dervish, a man in perpetual motion. No part of the campaign escapes his eye strategy, organization, message, polling, media, issues or money. "He dominates a campaign," says friend and fellow Republican strategist David Weeks. "Nothing ever happens that he's not aware of."
For 20 years, Rove has been at the center of a political realignment that has transformed the Lone Star State from one-party Democratic dominance to an era of Republican ascendance. He is smart, aggressive, shrewd and funny, and the rollout of the Bush campaign bears his imprint. His admirers speak of him as the Bush strategist most likely to emerge as a national player from this campaign. "The rest of us are reasonably competent," a Bush supporter says, "but Karl's the real genius of the operation."
But as a practitioner of the take-no-prisoners politics common to Republican operatives of his generation, Rove also has detractors. They say he is ruthless and power-hungry, that he will do whatever it takes to win.
One of the few critics willing to speak for the record was conservative Tom Pauken, who regularly fought with Rove and Bush when he was Texas Republican Party chairman during Bush's first term as governor. "Karl's very capable and wants to be the next Lee Atwater," Pauken says. "He's very much what I would call a control freak."
Rove pleads guilty to being an intense competitor, and his game plan has helped Bush dominate his GOP rivals in the early stages of the 2000 campaign. "I get revved," he says. "I'm a competitive guy. I like to win."
But he challenges those who claim he has a win-at-any-cost approach or that his competitiveness turns personal. "Life's too short to stay focused on settling scores," he says. "I'd like to think that I have been associated with people who have run campaigns that, while they've been strong, they've been fair."
Some Democrats agree. "I think he fights fair," says Kirk Adams, who battled Rove on behalf of former Democratic governor Ann Richards in the 1994 campaign.
Bush has pledged to run a positive campaign, and so it is perhaps no coincidence that Rove says the era of attack politics has run its course. "I think we've gone through a period in American politics from the '70s and '80s where the negative campaign worked to where it doesn't," he says. "I think what does work in politics is the counterpunch rather than the punch."
Rove, 48, was born in Colorado, grew up in an apolitical household and caught the political bug after the family moved to Utah. In 1971 he quit the University of Utah and moved to Washington to become executive director of the College Republicans.
In 1973, he and the College Republicans were accused of encouraging dirty tricks during the Watergate campaign year of 1972. The Republican National Committee, which was then chaired by Bush's father, investigated and eventually exonerated Rove, who blames political opponents from his chairmanship race for spreading false allegations.
But Rove acknowledges that, in 1970, he used a false identity to gain entry to the campaign offices of Illinois Democrat Alan Dixon, who was running for state treasurer. Once inside, Rove swiped some letterhead stationery and sent out 1,000 bogus invitations to the opening of the candidate's headquarters promising "free beer, free food, girls and a good time for nothing."
"It was a youthful prank at the age of 19 and I regret it," Rove says.
He has had a Bush connection for 25 years, having first met George W. Bush while working as an assistant to Bush's father at the RNC in 1973-74. In 1977, he moved to Texas to work for the elder Bush's political action committee, and in 1978 helped George W. Bush in his unsuccessful race for Congress. Rove left the elder Bush's presidential campaign and moved to Austin in early 1979, in part to try to save a failing marriage. There he went to work for Bill Clements, the first Republican governor of Texas elected in this century. The marriage eventually dissolved, but the move to Austin launched Rove on a 20-year crusade to remake the political face of the state.
Despite knowing each other for two decades, Rove still calls the governor "sir" when they talk on the phone. And Bush seems to enjoy tormenting his chief strategist, keeping Rove's hyperkinetic energy in check and occasionally rebuking his top strategist for speaking too freely to the press. And earlier this year, Bush required Rove to sell his consulting firm and direct-mail company to concentrate full time on the presidential campaign.
But Bush is as loyal to Rove as Rove is to his candidate. "He's a friend," Bush said. "He is a very unique and very smart and very capable person. He is he's just Karl, and when everybody understands what 'just Karl' means, we all get along."
Rove remarried in 1986. He and his wife, Darby, a graphic artist, have a 10-year-old son and live in a house in the hills overlooking Austin. They are also renovating an old lodge on the Guadalupe River in the Hill Country southwest of Austin. He is an avid quail hunter. "That's Q-U-A-I-L," he says.
A student of political history who teaches part time at the University of Texas, Rove has been provisionally accepted into the university's doctoral program in government. Not bad for someone who hasn't finished college. "I lack at this point one math class, which I can take by exam, and my foreign language requirement," he said.
His recent undergraduate course work prompted him to delve into William McKinley's presidential campaign in 1896, and he sees parallels between that election and the campaign of 2000.
McKinley, says Rove, correctly analyzed the political significance of the new, industrial-based economy and understood that the wave of immigration at the turn of the century was creating a diverse population that would require a new kind of politics. He says McKinley also sensed that the campaign of 1896 represented the passing of an older generation from political power.
"He saw that the issues that had dominated American politics since the 1860s had sort of worn themselves out," Rove says. "Neither party could successfully appeal upon the basis of their Civil War allegiances. All those issues had either become resolved or irrelevant."
Rove says there are clear differences between then and now, but his description of McKinley's campaign almost writes the script for Bush's campaign of "compassionate conservatism." "A successful party," Rove says of the GOP under McKinley, "had to take its fundamental principles and style them in such a way that they seemed to have relevance to the new economy, the new nature of the country and the new electorate."
By Dan Balz, Washington Post Staff Writer
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