Roves Word Is No Longer G.O.P. Gospel
Rove's Word Is No Longer G.O.P. Gospel
By ADAM NAGOURNEY and JIM RUTENBERG
WASHINGTON, Sept. 2 Karl Rove, the president's chief political
adviser, is struggling to steer the Republican Party to victory this
fall at a time when he appears to have the least political authority
since he came to Washington, party officials said.
Mr. Rove remains a dominant adviser to President Bush, administration
officials say. But outside the White House, as Mr. Bush's popularity
has waned, and as questions have arisen among Republicans about the
White House's political acumen, the party's candidates are going their
own way in this difficult election season far more than they have in
any other campaign Mr. Rove has overseen.
Some are disregarding Mr. Rove's advice, despite his reputation as the
nation's premier strategist. They are criticizing Mr. Bush or his
policies. They are avoiding public events with the president and Mr. Rove.
Influential conservative commentators have openly broken with the
White House, calling into question the continued enthusiasm of
evangelicals, economic conservatives and other groups that Mr. Rove
has counted on to win elections. Some Republicans are ignoring Mr.
Rove's efforts to hold the party together on issues like immigration
In a reflection of this difficult environment, the White House has
decided to concentrate nearly all its resources on the critical fight
to keep control of Congress, party officials said, largely stepping
away from the governors' races, at least for now.
In Michigan last week, Dick DeVos, a Republican candidate for governor
and a longtime contributor to Mr. Bush, startled national Republican
Party leaders with a searing attack on the president for failing to
meet with the leaders of the Big Three automakers. "We're being
ignored here in Michigan by the White House, and it has got to stop,"
Mr. DeVos said.
His communications director, John Truscott, said the attack was timed
to coincide with Mr. Rove's visit to Michigan for a fund-raiser, in an
effort to goad Mr. Bush into a response. Asked if the DeVos campaign
was worried about angering Mr. Rove, Mr. Truscott said, "That never
even crossed our mind."
Representative Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, who was chairman of
the Congressional Republican campaign committee in 2002, said Mr. Rove
and the White House seemed measurably less involved this year.
"It's been more of a bunker mentality, don't you think?" Mr. Davis
said. "They have been good in terms of raising the money. The problem
is, you have a president with a 38 percent approval rating, and it
just changes the dynamics of what they can do."
This midterm election presents Mr. Rove with a particularly difficult
challenge. Beyond testing his reputation for always finding a way to
win, the outcome could determine the extent of Mr. Bush's influence
for the rest of his presidency and shape the way he is perceived by
history. Mr. Rove has warned associates that a Democratic takeover in
Congress would mean an end to Mr. Bush's legislative hopes and invite
two years of potentially crippling investigations into the administration.
The White House said that Mr. Rove would consider an interview for
this article if it were conducted off the record, with the provision
that quotations could be put on the record with White House approval,
a condition it said was set for other interviews with Mr. Rove. The
New York Times declined.
The diminishment in Mr. Rove's influence reflects the fact that his
power is to some extent a function of Mr. Bush's popularity. In some
cases, Republican candidates have made a deliberate strategic decision
that the way to win is to distance themselves from the White House.
But a central problem, Republicans said, is that Mr. Rove is seen as
juggling two potentially conflicting agendas: protecting the
president's legacy and taking steps to help Republican candidates win
Mr. Rove enters the campaign season after a year of personal tumult.
Until mid-June he faced the threat of indictment in the investigation
into the leak of a C.I.A. officer's identity, and in April, he was
stripped of some of his duties in the White House. Mr. Rove was moved
from a West Wing corner suite to a smaller windowless office across
the hall, a shift one friend said he found demoralizing.
Mr. Rove's associates said that throughout the leak investigation, he
was coiled and withdrawn. They said his demeanor brightened the moment
he learned he would not be indicted. Associates described him as
displaying relentless optimism about an election that is filling
Republicans with a sense of doom.
Mr. Rove determines the bulk of the president's schedule and is a
crucial figure in determining what Mr. Bush should say this fall. He
is the White House's main conduit to conservatives whose willingness
to turn out at the polls could help determine the party's success.
Mr. Rove has become a star fund-raiser for the Republican Party,
raising $10,357,486 at 75 events in 29 states, according to the
Republican National Committee. Mr. Rove runs regular White House
meetings, typically at 6:30 a.m. in the White House mess, reviewing
high-profile House and Senate races with the White House political
director, Sara Taylor, and sometimes with Congressional leaders. He
shares his view of the landscape with Mr. Bush in a daily 8:30 a.m.
Mr. Rove with Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee
chairman, and Ms. Taylor, both of whom have assumed a higher profile
than in past years has settled on a narrow strategy to try to
minimize Congressional losses while tending to Mr. Bush's political
strength. The White House will reprise the two T's of its successful
campaign strategy since 2002: terrorism and turnout.
They have determined that control of Congress is likely to be settled
in as few as six states and have decided to focus most of the party's
resources there, said Republican officials who did not want to be
identified discussing internal deliberations. Those states will likely
include Connecticut, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and
Washington, though officials said the battle lines could shift in
The White House is largely turning away from the 36 governors' races,
although Mr. Rove and Mr. Bush will continue to help Republican
candidates for governor raise money, party officials said. The
decision has broad significance because building a foundation of
Republican governors had been a main part of Mr. Rove's goal of
creating a long-lasting Republican majority.
The Republican National Committee expects to spend over $60 million,
which would be a record, for the midterm elections. Officials say half
of that would pay for get-out-the-vote operations in the targeted states.
In states where Mr. Bush's presence could be problematic, like
Pennsylvania and Connecticut, the turnout operations give Mr. Rove a
way to provide below-the-radar help.
Mr. Mehlman, whom Mr. Rove assigned to master get-out-the-vote
techniques years ago, has handed custom compact discs with lists of
voters, along with information on their voting and consumer habits, to
every state Republican chairman.
One administration official said that Mr. Rove was also looking beyond
Mr. Bush's term, to the creation of his library. And he is quietly
making his influence felt in the 2008 presidential campaign. Most
significantly, the White House has signaled to Bush supporters that
they are free to work for Senator John McCain of Arizona, which could
provide Mr. Rove a network of intelligence in 2008. Mr. Rove has made
clear to associates that he is not supporting any candidate in that race.
Mr. Rove's associates said it was inevitable that his clout would
diminish somewhat given the president's declining approval rating and
the history of two-term presidents generally weakening by their sixth
year in office.
"Anytime you're in the position of being the prime mover, and you've
got five people saying we should do it this way and five others saying
we should do it that way, you're going to aggravate five people
inevitably when you come down with a decision," said Ed Gillespie, a
former Republican National Committee chairman. "But Karl is willing to
do that, and you're going to get your share of slings and arrows when
Indeed, Democrats aware of Mr. Rove's reputation for pulling out all
the stops when necessary and his ability to call on a shadow political
machine of interest groups and donors to attack opponents said they
remained worried about what kind of effort Mr. Rove might unleash in
the closing weeks of the campaign.
But the limits of Mr. Rove's influence were made clear this year when
he was unable to persuade the speaker of the Florida House of
Representatives, Allan G. Bense, to run in the Republican primary for
Senate against Representative Katherine Harris, whom the party judged
to be a weak candidate. Mr. Rove invited Mr. Bense for a sit-down at
his vacation home in Rosemary Beach, Fla., as part of a long but
failed effort to get him to challenge Ms. Harris for the nomination,
said Towson Fraser, a spokesman for Mr. Bense.
And Mr. Rove's associates say he appreciates the need of candidates to
distance themselves from the White House to win. But he was described
as angered by candidates who he thought were going too far in
criticizing Mr. Bush out of concern that attacks could further damage
an already weakened president, they said.
Mr. Rove meets in person only infrequently with the Republican heads
of the Senate and House campaign committees, Senator Elizabeth Dole of
North Carolina and Representative Thomas M. Reynolds of New York,
though Mrs. Dole said he was always ready to jump on a plane to a
fund-raiser at her request.
Mr. Reynolds said the White House had been untiring in raising money
and providing surrogates. But he made clear that when it came to the
House races, he was running the show.
"I'm the one who put together what I think is our best effort to win a
House majority in 2006," Mr. Reynolds said.
In the Ohio Senate race, Mr. Rove has found himself in a
back-and-forth with Senator Mike DeWine. Mr. DeWine has at times
resisted Mr. Rove's counsel that he employ an unrelenting focus on
terrorism, exhibiting what other Republicans described as ambivalence
about a television commercial depicting the World Trade Center burning.
Candidates and strategists across the country say that they hear from
Mr. Rove infrequently.
Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, chairman of the Republican
Governors Association, said he encountered Mr. Rove at a dinner at
Vice President Dick Cheney's home here in late July. "We chatted for a
minute," Mr. Romney said. "He was interested in how the governors'
races were looking. But it was interest as a fellow Republican."