Karl Rove spent last week where he usually does, out of the limelight. But that didn't stop Democrats from seeing Rove everywhere, his invisible hand guiding all that the White House has done to prepare the country for war. For months Democrats have suspected that Rove, President Bush's chief strategist, was manipulating the war on terror to Republicans' political advantage. In August, when Democratic operative Jim Jordan was asked how war might affect the November elections, he replied caustically, "You mean when General Rove calls in the air strikes in October?" And when majority leader Tom Daschle erupted on the Senate floor last week, accusing the Bush White House of politicizing the national-security debate, he fingered Rove as a principal culprit.
Over dinner in a Washington steak house, Rove laughed off suggestions that he had manufactured the Iraq debate to divert attention from the sagging economy. "It's ridiculous!" he told TIME. "That's not me, and you know it." But that's the thing about Rove; few people know exactly where or whether the perception of his clout diverges from reality.
There is no doubt that Rove ranks among the most influential staff members ever to advise a President. He is so peripatetic, his political and policy interests so catholic, that it's tempting for Democrats and Republicans alike to assume there are no limits to Rove's powereven if there are.
It doesn't help that Rove has the habit of fueling speculation that the White House is wagging the dog. In January he suggested that the war on terror created a political advantage because Americans "trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America." In June a misplaced diskette containing one of Rove's private PowerPoint presentations included advice to candidates to "focus on the war" in their fall campaigns. When friends ask whether Bush really plans to invade Iraq, Rove has been known to reply, "Let me put it this way: If you want to see Baghdad, you'd better visit soon."
But the image of General Rove drawing up war plans exists mostly in the imagination of Democrats who fear and loathe the man. Insiders swear that Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell wouldn't stand for interference from a political operative. Superhawks Cheney and Rumsfeld didn't need Rove to tell them to target Saddam, and Powell has warned the White House that he doesn't expect to receive, and won't accept, phone calls from Rove.
Then there's the President, who likes to keep his exuberant aide in check by tartly reminding him who's boss. Says Ed Gillespie, a G.O.P. strategist who worked with Rove on the Bush campaign: "If Karl said we should invade Iraq to help us in the November elections, he would have found himself sitting on his ass on Pennsylvania Avenue because the President would have thrown him out of the Oval Office."
Still, Rove knows an opportunity when he sees one. In private, Republicans concede that Bush's focus on Iraq has vastly improved their chances in November and bless Rove for his efforts. More than a few G.O.P. candidates, taking their cue from Bush's political guru, are beating the war drums in their speeches and insinuating that their Democratic opponents are soft on defense. But others fear this kind of talk has gone too far and could backfire. "There are some high-level people in the White House, Karl Rove being the main driver, who are using this for politics," says a G.O.P. Senator, whose message to his colleagues is: "Don't be baited. Don't let Rove hook you."
Though Rove insists he doesn't play a foreign policy role, he fought an internal battle last spring with Bush's economic and foreign policy advisers over steel tariffs. Rove was for imposing the dutiesfavored by steel companies and unions in Mid-western swing statesand he won. It was Rove who in July warned Republican lawmakers who wanted to lift the trade embargo on Cuba that the White House would never go along.
Bush's position was based on policy, not politics, Rove promised, but the Congressmen didn't buy it. The Cuban-American lobby is key to Bush's hope of winning Florida in 2004, not to mention his brother's tough re-election bid in November to be the state's Governor. Says anti-embargo Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona: "Everyone recognizes there is a political element to this."
And to almost everything else Rove is involved in. Rove has already drawn up plans for the 2004 re-election campaign, White House sources tell TIME. Ken Mehlman, his deputy, will leave the White House to be the official campaign manager. But Rove will run things from inside, following the example of James Baker, who managed Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election effort as White House chief of staff. Like Baker, says a senior White House official, Rove wants to be "as much about policy as politics."