Election 2002: W. and the Boy Genius

KARL ROVE'S strategy for winning the midterm elections was risky and brash, like its author. Here is the inside story of how the President and his political strategist gambled it all and won

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There is, as a rule, no smoking in the White House, but this Election Day was one for breaking the rules. The moment of sweet vindication came at midnight, up in the private quarters, where President Bush and close aides were watching the returns on the Fox News Channel. Unlike the fateful election night of 2000, when they waited for results that never came, this one was going well, and the President, who hovered close enough to the television to get static cling, was enjoying it. His strategist Karl Rove was perched on the edge of an armchair, double-thumbing e-mail messages into his BlackBerry when the call came in from Lloyd Smith, the salty 51-year-old manager of Jim Talent's campaign against Senator Jean Carnahan in Missouri. His boys had been torturing the computer models, Smith said, and it looked as if Talent was performing well enough in the Democratic strongholds of St. Louis and Kansas City to guarantee victory. "You're the man!" Rove bellowed back into his cell phone. Then he gave the President the news: Talent's win meant they didn't have just the state; they had the Senate. They had it all.

And with that, the President lighted a cigar.

It's especially heady to win the game when even playing it is a gamble. Presidents aren't supposed to bet their prestige in midterm elections, which their party traditionally loses. Rove especially, as Bush's long political shadow, could imagine the stories that would have been written if he had sent the President into every tight race and the Republicans still lost: no coattails, no mandate, no respect for the adviser who had peddled perhaps the riskiest midterm-election strategy ever to emerge from a White House. Instead he woke up Wednesday morning in a new political world, one step closer to the grand, gauzy vision Rove has been touting for the past three years: that together he and Bush are forging a new Republican majority that will rule the land for a generation. "This is part of it," Rove told TIME last week. "It's not going to be a dramatic realignment of American politics in which one day it's deadlocked and the next day it's a blowout. The changes are gradual, but they're persistent."

The victory reflected more than a year of careful plotting: harvesting candidates, husbanding resources, refining messages. But in the crucial last weeks, it also reflected the extraordinary relationship between the President and his political adviser of nearly 15 years. What does it take to persuade a President, who has a country to run and a reputation to protect and who prefers to go to sleep in his own bed, usually before 10 p.m., to plunge from state to state as though his own survival depended on it, when in fact the opposite is true? The sheer nerve of the White House strategy left even enemies in awe. "What they did was risky as hell," marvels Tony Coelho, a veteran operative who served as chairman of Al Gore's 2000 campaign. "They rolled the dice, they won, and now Bush has a huge mandate. It's not about 9/11 anymore. He is the legitimate President."

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