For a man still climbing out of the rubble, Karl Rove seemed in his usual unflappable mood. He roamed around his windowless West Wing office decorated with four Abraham Lincoln portraits, joking with his staff, stuffing copies of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" into his bag and signing the last paperwork of the day.
The Architect, as President Bush once called him, has a theory for why the building fell down. "Get me the one-pager!" he cried out to an aide, who promptly delivered a single sheet of paper that had been updated almost hourly since the midterm elections with a series of statistics explaining that the "thumping" Bush took was not such a thumping after all.
The theory is this: The building's infrastructure was actually quite sound. It was bad luck and seasonal shifts in the winds that blew out the walls -- complacent candidates, an ill-timed Mark Foley page scandal and the predictable cycles of history. But the foundation is fine: "The Republican philosophy is alive and well and likely to reemerge in the majority in 2008."
The rest of Washington might think Tuesday's elections were a repudiation of Rove's brand of politics, but Rove does not. For years, he has been the center of hyperbolic attention -- called the genius, the electoral mastermind, the most powerful presidential adviser in a century, Bush's brain, the master of the dark arts of wedge politics, the Republican Moses leading conservatives out of the desert.
The mythology grew to such an outsized degree that when Rove insisted again and again during the campaign that Republicans would win despite the odds, fearful Democrats convinced themselves that he must have known something they did not and waited for an October surprise to spring. Rove encouraged that with supreme confidence. "You are entitled to your math, and I'm entitled to the math," he told a National Public Radio interviewer who suggested Democrats might win.
Jabs at Rove
It turns out that Rove is mortal after all, and not always so good at math. And his critics are crowing. If he tuned in to CNN or NPR last week, here's a sampling of what he would have heard about himself.
Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail pioneer: "Clearly a loss for George Bush, Karl Rove."
Andrew Sullivan, the conservative writer: "Shows him not to be a genius, but to be a real failure as a political strategist."
Bill Maher, the political satirist: "Karl Rove has led this Republican Party down a hole."
David Gergen, ex-presidential adviser: "He went off to hardliners, and that left an awful lot of moderates . . . feeling alienated."
Even Bush seemed to be jabbing at Rove in the aftermath of the elections, which handed Congress back to the Democrats. At a news conference Wednesday, Bush was asked about his ongoing book-reading contest with Rove. "I'm losing," Bush said tartly. "I obviously was working harder in the campaign that he was."
But those who interpret that as anything more than an affectionate, if edgy, dig misunderstand the president's sense of humor and his relationship with his chief strategist, according to officials. Bush likes to needle Rove, even nicknaming him "Turd Blossom," but aides said he does not blame his adviser for the loss, and few believe Rove will lose his job. Instead, he will turn to figuring out a policy and political agenda that can salvage the last two years of the Bush presidency.
"From everything that I've heard, Karl will be around till the end," said Michael J. Gerson, a former White House adviser. "The reason is simple: People who view him as a campaign operative whose usefulness ends when the last vote is counted are wrong."
Asked about his plans, Rove fell back on his standard line: "I serve at the pleasure of the president with the agreement of my wife."
Allies argued that without Rove, the losses would have been worse. "He deserves a good bit of credit for victories and probably he would admit he should take a little blame for the failure," said Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.). "That does not make him any less of a strategic thinker because he had a loss. If I was taking advice outside of the box from anyone, he would probably be the first person I call."
Mary Matalin, an adviser to Vice President Cheney, said Rove is still "the Zen master of movement politics" but envious rivals are eager to gloat over a single defeat. "Karl has done a lot of things that he had to do that were necessary, and if you've been around that long you make enemies," she said. "They used to call it the green-eyed monster. It's the nature of the town."
Rove's brand of politics aims to sharpen differences with the opposition, energize the conservative base and micro-target voters to pick off selected parts of the other side's constituency. As he has in past elections, Rove designed a strategy to paint Democrats as weak on national security and terrorism, the "party of cut and run."
In an expansive interview last week, Rove said that strategy was working until the House page sex scandal involving ex-representative Foley (R-Fla.) put the Republican campaign "back on its heels," as he put it. "We were on a roll, and it stopped it," he said. "It revived all the stuff about Abramoff and added to it."
The various scandals surrounding convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and other ethics allegations, Rove said, had as much, if not more, to do with the defeat than the Iraq war. In Rove's analysis, 10 of the 28 House seats Republicans lost were sacrificed because of various scandals. Another six, he said, were lost because incumbents did not recognize and react quickly enough to the threat. That leaves 12 other seats lost, fewer than the 15 that Democrats needed to capture the House. So without corruption and complacency, he argued, Republicans could have kept control regardless of Bush's troubles and the war.
"It plays some role, but if Iraq is the determining factor and it is a dominant opinion, then in a blue state like Connecticut you should not have 60 percent of the voters vote for one of the candidates who said, 'Stay, fight and win,' " Rove said, referring to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman's victory as an independent. "I don't deny that it's a factor, but it is hard to declare" that it is the overriding factor.
The "one-pager" outlines why, in his view, the losses were not particularly extraordinary and therefore not a repudiation of Bush: The loss of 28 House seats and six Senate seats is roughly comparable to losses suffered by the party in the White House in the sixth year of other presidencies and the same as the average wartime midterm. Moreover, it says, 23 races were decided by two percentage points or less, and it credits the "GOP Ground Game," the Rove-devised turnout machine. Overall, a shift of 77,611 votes would have kept the House in Republican hands.
Others point to different statistics -- voters nearly 2 to 1 casting ballots to express opposition to Bush; one in five conservatives voting for Democrats; fewer Hispanics, Catholics and evangelicals supporting Republicans; most voters favoring withdrawal of some or all U.S. troops from Iraq. Some dismiss Rove's historical comparisons as a rationalization for failure, especially since the gerrymandering of House districts has made it harder to oust incumbents than in past midterms.
Without referencing Rove specifically, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman called it a mistake to compare last week's defeat to past trends. "If we simply say there were historical problems we could not overcome, and that we did not have a chance to win, then we have a real problem," said Mehlman, a Rove protege. If Republicans recommit themselves to reform and smaller government, this election will be a "brief interruption in a generational effort to build a center-right majority.
Rove seconds that last thought and believes his turnout campaign actually beat the odds of history, ticking off a dozen races that were supposed to be closer. "What happened in all those? It may have been that the tactical work done by the White House, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee had a big impact."
The lesson, he added, is that "if you're not complacent and you're prepared and you are driving and have a good game," you can win even in a tough political year. And so now it's back to the drawing board for the Architect.
Staff writer Jim VandeHei contributed to this report.