Rove’s Word Is No Longer G.O.P. Gospel
By ADAM NAGOURNEY and JIM RUTENBERG - New York Times
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 and Iraq.
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 re-election.
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. briefing.
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 coming weeks.
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 you are.”
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.”