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Fall elections are Rove's next test

White House political strategist Karl Rove emerges from the CIA leak case with his reputation scuffed, his power slightly diminished, and Republicans counting on him, once again, to help rescue their House and Senate majorities.
George W. Bush, Karl Rove
President Bush speaks with advisor Karl Rove, right, in front of Marine One at TSTC Airfield, in Waco, Texas, Friday.Duane A. Laverty / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

White House political strategist Karl Rove emerges from the CIA leak case with his reputation scuffed, his power slightly diminished, and Republicans counting on him, once again, to help rescue their House and Senate majorities.

Described by friends as relieved and recharged after getting the news this week that he will not be indicted in the leak probe, Rove now faces another verdict this fall over his abilities as a political strategist and his ambition to build an enduring GOP majority.

Rove's reputation as a campaign operative is unparalleled -- he is hailed by President Bush as the architect of his 2004 reelection -- but his judgment in melding politics and policy into an effective governing strategy has been called into question in the president's second term. Bush endured the worst stretch of his presidency when Rove's powers inside the White House were at their peak.

Not all of the problems can be laid at Rove's feet, given how much the Iraq war has damaged the president's standing. But Rove was the conceptual brains and chief cheerleader behind what turned into the biggest domestic policy failure of Bush's presidency -- the effort to introduce personal savings accounts into the Social Security program.

Republicans interviewed for this article also said they believed that the failure of others in the White House to check Rove's expanded powers contributed to missteps that they say were far less common during Bush's first term.

Opportunity to purge missteps
Now Rove has the freedom to concentrate on preserving the GOP majorities in Congress, and an opportunity to purge the mistakes of the past two years. Based on recent Rove speeches and interviews with senior GOP officials, his plan for the midterm elections echoes the strategy he plotted out in 2002 and 2004, adapted to a new and more difficult environment. He hopes to make the election a choice between the philosophies of the two parties, especially on national security, rather than a referendum on Bush's performance. He also aims to stoke the Republican base with such issues as tax cuts, same-sex marriage and judicial appointments. Rove declined to comment for this article.

For the first time since Bush became a national candidate, Rove faces a fractured Republican coalition, at odds over immigration and spending. Rove has been concentrating his energies, GOP officials said, on reuniting the party.

"The results of the 2006 election will be the final verdict of his standing with the president and his party," said Tad Devine, who was a senior strategist in the campaigns of Democratic presidential nominees Al Gore and John F. Kerry. "If the Republicans hold the House and Senate, Karl's stock will go up, and if they lose it, the cloud that hung over him for a long time will return."

Most Republicans and Democrats interviewed for this article said Rove's White House stature has been diminished only slightly, and perhaps only temporarily, by Bush's political problems and the leak probe. Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman, struggled to find the right superlative. "He is, he is, he is, well, Karl Rove," Gillespie said. And Democratic strategist Donnie Fowler called him the "shrewdest of his generation -- and the toughest."

The record, they say, speaks for itself: Rove was the architect of a series of victories for Bush -- the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, as well as the 2002 midterms -- that left Democrats demoralized and divided. While it might be Washington myth that Rove is responsible for all of Bush's wins -- after all, it was the president who executed the plans and earned the vote -- the balding Texan with the mischievous grin gets much of the credit in the eyes of Republicans and Democrats alike.

He also gets the blame when numbers go down. "Karl is rightly called a genius, and, like any genius, his can be big mistakes," said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). He said that Rove is the smartest political mind in the party today but that his efforts to "buy votes" from independents by expanding the education system and creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit in the first term are hurting Republicans badly today. "Those issues turned off the base," Feeney said.

Biggest blunder
The Social Security debate, however, was probably his biggest blunder, Republicans inside and outside the White House said. Fresh off the 2004 victory, Rove convinced Bush that an in-depth analysis of past second-term presidents showed the only way to succeed was to act quickly and boldly. Internally, Rove championed a plan to restructure Social Security by allowing younger Americans to put some of the their Social Security taxes into private accounts in exchange for a reduction in guaranteed benefits.

Rove gambled that Bush could bend Congress and a skeptical public to his will. He was wrong.

"When you look at the history of this second term, the Social Security proposal and selling of it . . . was a big tactical mistake," said a former White House official, who would discuss internal operations only under the condition of anonymity. "The problem was the opportunity cost: When Bush was busy selling Social Security ineffectively, the numbers on Iraq were dropping precipitously."

Rove's elevation to deputy chief of staff after the 2004 election created an imbalance inside the White House that Republicans outside the administration believe contributed to the problems in 2005. His title was understated, but, in essence, he was controlling strategic planning, day-to-day policy management, politics and often communications, aides said.

Difficult to challenge
Rove's intellect, powerful personality and close relationship to the president gave him advantages in the administration's internal debates that others could not match. With his new status, his powers were, if anything, even more intimidating -- making it all the more difficult for others to challenge his views. Aides present at the time said Rove would hold strategy meetings on Social Security after it was clear that the plan was dead on Capitol Hill. No one in the room felt comfortable to challenge him -- even though, as one participant recalled, they would whisper afterward about the futility of their efforts.

The CIA leak investigation was far more of a distraction than either Bush or Rove publicly acknowledged, according to current and former White House officials. Rove testified before a federal grand jury five times, met with his high-priced lawyer, plotted a defense and faced a constant threat of being indicted for making false statements in the case. Famous for his ability to juggle issues, and staying in the loop through his BlackBerry, Rove was nonetheless pulled away at key moments.

"You cannot have that kind of thing swirling around you without an enormous amount of anxiety," said Republican lobbyist Vin Weber, an informal White House adviser and Rove ally. "I can tell you this: It demoralized the whole White House, not because they thought the guy in their midst was crooked but . . . because he is very well liked in the White House."

Some Republicans said Rove's preoccupation was partly responsible for the debacle of White House counsel Harriet Miers's failed nomination to the Supreme Court last fall. Conservatives loathed the choice and eventually forced Bush to pull her nomination, a low point for his presidency.

"That really damaged Bush," said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, who added that conservatives routinely tell the president that the Miers pick was the moment they started to question him. "It was not an accident that it happened at the height of the [CIA leak probe], when Rove was at his weakest."

Rove, a historian with an encyclopedic knowledge of elections, was sensitive to the perception that his influence was waning, according to current and former White House officials. After he was stripped of control over day-to-day policy management when Joshua B. Bolten became the new chief of staff, Rove spread the word that the change did not mean he was losing the power to shape policy. By the accounts of most White House aides, this is true.

Lessened influence
Even so, the combination of staff changes, the failure of the Social Security plan and the distraction of the leak case allowed other aides such as Bolten and adviser Dan Bartlett to rise in status and influence with Bush, the officials said. Rove remains a powerful force but one whose judgments are checked by Bolten, who is considered a more forceful chief of staff than his predecessor, Andrew H. Card Jr.; by Bartlett; and by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"Karl gets more credit and more blame than any person on Earth -- whether all things positive from a Republican perspective or negative from a liberal Democratic perspective," said John Weaver, chief strategist for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "That's not fair. He deserves much of the credit, but so does the president and much of the team. Likewise when things go poorly."

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham  (R-S.C.) said, "When it comes time for the Republican Party to focus on maintaining its majorities, his standing will be as large as ever because he is our go-to guy on politicking." But "when it comes to governing, it is a mixed bag" for Rove. "Nobody is going to listen to us about how bad the Democrats are until they have confidence in us" to govern effectively.

His assignment to shape strategy for the midterm elections is no easy task considering the public's low opinion of Bush and Congress. Rove has gained a reputation for running polarizing campaigns aimed at maximizing the turnout of the GOP's conservative base. But he also had success in 2004 with policy proposals designed to chip away at Democratic or swing constituencies such as Hispanics, suburban women and Roman Catholics. Republican divisions on immigration show the limitations of that strategy, but it is not likely that Rove will abandon it.

Beyond campaigns, Rove has put aides on notice that his focus is also Bush's presidential legacy. At a meeting of senior White House staffers this month, one official recalled, budget director Rob Portman suggested in the course of discussing some issues that time was limited. "We've only got so much time left," Portman said.

"Wait," Rove interrupted. "We've got a lot of time left. Jack Kennedy's whole presidency was 2 1/2 years."