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Off the hook, and back on the campaign trail?

The effect of special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's decision is to "let Rove be Rove" — allowing him to revert to full-time electoral strategy and the results may be better for Republicans than most pundits were expecting a few weeks ago.
Karl Rove Appears In Federal Court Over CIA Leak
Karl Rove leaves the federal courthouse in Washington, D.C. on April 26 after testifying before a grand jury.Win Mcnamee / Getty Images file
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WASHINGTON — The news that President Bush’s longtime campaign strategist Karl Rove won't be indicted in the CIA leak case comes after many months in which some, if not most, Democrats had hoped and expected that a man they despise would be not only charged, but ultimately hauled off to jail.

A Rove indictment would have hurt the president and made the fall elections more difficult for at least some 2006 Republican candidates.

Now with the cloud of indictment lifted, Rove is liberated.

The effect of special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's decision is to "let Rove be Rove" — allowing him to revert to full-time electoral strategy and the results may be better for Republicans than most pundits were expecting a few weeks ago.

Republican House candidate Brian Bilbray's victory in last week's special election to fill Randy "Duke" Cunningham's seat in California -- an election in which "the culture of corruption" had been the Democrats' prime issue --  suggests that 2006 won't necessarily be as good a year as Democrats had hoped.

The man Bush used to call "Turd Blossom" can now re-focus his attention on the fall campaign and on the problems that have beset his three great strategic moves of recent years:

  • An outreach to Latino voters, hoping to make them a permanent part of the Republican party.
  • The use of national security as a signature issue, with the invasion of Iraq a case study of Republican toughness.
  • An immensely expensive expansion of Medicare to include prescription drugs, as a way of taking the drug issue off the table prior to the 2004 election.

All three of those projects have had problems.

In the 2000 campaign Bush used the line, "Family values don't stop at the Rio Grande" as a way of painting immigrants as hard-working people who sought a better life for their kids. But this year's debate over illegal immigration has served as a reminder that many Republicans are adamantly opposed to amnesty, "earned legalization," or any other accommodations for illegal immigrants.

As for Iraq, discontent over the war will be a defining issue in this fall's elections and Democrats believe it will benefit them.

In a vintage Rove speech Monday in New Hampshire, he assailed Democrats such as Rep John Murtha, D-Pa., for criticizing Bush's conduct of the war. "They may be with you for the first shots; but they're not going ... to be with you for the tough battles," Rove said.

Regarding the Medicare drug plan, the administration says more than 85 percent of eligible beneficiaries are either enrolled or have other coverage. That leaves about five million who still haven't enrolled. That program has been beleaguered by bureaucratic problems and a relentless Democratic campaign to denigrate it. Republican fiscal conservatives as well are aghast at the program's cost and its burden on the federal budget in coming years.

But Rove and Bush did not take the drug issue off the table; instead it has gotten new life. So even with his new free time, Rove has a lot of work ahead of him.

'I don't need to be lectured by Karl Rove'
Indicted or not, Rove remains a target for Democrats' rhetoric.

"I don't think he conducted himself honorably and well," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D- N.Y. at a press conference Tuesday reacting to the news of no indictment.

Likely 2008 Democratic presidential contender and former Virginia governor Mark Warner says in campaign speeches that he'll always remember standing in Arlington, Va. on Sept. 11 and seeing smoke billowing up from the Pentagon. "I understand first-hand what this threat means to America and our way of life," Warner said. "I, for one, get more than a little annoyed when I hear the president's political folks like Karl Rove say Democrats are caught in a pre-9/11 mentality."

As governor, Warner visited the families of firefighters who lost their lives at the Pentagon after it was hit on that day. "I don't need to be lectured by Karl Rove.... on what is needed to keep America safe."

Since the 1980s — but especially since 9/11 — polling data has suggested that voters trust the Republicans more than the Democrats on national security issues.

Just four months after 9/11, to the exacerbation of many Democrats, Rove told the Republican National Committee: “We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.”

An indictment of Rove in the CIA leak case would have given Democrats a stick to beat the Republicans with: the notion that when it comes to national security — exemplified by protecting the identity of CIA employee Valerie Plame — Republicans are not to be trusted.

'... the last presidential campaign I will ever do'
In November 2004, Rove pledged: “This will be the last presidential campaign I will ever do.”

If the CIA leak investigation had not intervened, one of the 2008 Republican presidential contenders might have persuaded Rove to manage his campaign. The non-indictment raises the question: could one of the GOP contenders now persuade Rove to sign on?

Since 1978, when Rove’s skills helped William Clements become the first Republican governor of Texas in more than 100 years, he has been one of the most successful strategists of recent decades.

In the 2004 election, Bush’s electoral-vote victory margin was the smallest for any second-term president term since Woodrow Wilson in 1916. But as noted by analyst Rhodes Cook, for the first time since 1988, a presidential candidate won a majority of the popular vote.

And for the first time since 1924, the Republicans both reelected a president and kept control of House and Senate.

But this year Democrats still think conditions favor them.

"The fundamental problems that face us as Americans — $3 a gallon gasoline in large parts of the country, no plan in Iraq, problems with just about everything the government does whether it's Part D of Medicare or (Hurricane) Katrina, are what's weighing on the American people," Schumer said Tuesday.

Alluding to the killing of al Qaida leader Zarqawi and the Bilbray victory last week, Schumer said "these few developments... don't remove the cloud of incompetence that is over the administration's head."