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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To help candidates in need of a little extra muscle, Rove dispatched surrogates in all directions--experienced political hands such as Vin Webber, Charles Black and Don Fierce, who could keep him informed about where the money needed to flow right up to the final hours. "I was amazed at who was working these races," says a G.O.P. veteran. "Usually they have some 25-year-old kid." Shortly after Rove learned that the polls were tightening in the Senate race in North Carolina, the Republican Senatorial Committee sent an additional $1.5 million to help Elizabeth Dole. "They had the resources ready, and they didn't hesitate to pull the trigger," says consultant Ed Gillespie, one of Rove's expert surrogates who handled that race.

Through it all, Rove wore his war room on his belt--the postcard-size BlackBerry communicator that holds his unmatchable Rolodex as well as his e-mail system, through which he squirted orders and suggestions to campaign workers and lobbyists using only a few words. "It's like haiku," says a political operative who has been on the receiving end. During meetings--even ones with the President--Rove would constantly spin the BlackBerry's dial and punch out text on its tiny keyboard. "Sometimes we're in a meeting talking to each other and BlackBerrying each other at the same time," says a colleague. At times Rove's voltage got too hot even for all his outlets. He became known for breaking into song in midsentence. During games of gin rummy on Air Force One during Bush's campaign swings, Rove was always the loudest one yelling, "Feed the monkey!" when it was his turn to pick up a card. (Bush played once, Rove says, and "whipped me.")

Once they had recruited the right people, they needed the right message, and here it was the Democrats who thought they had the upper hand. On July 19, Frist's committee hosted a retreat for donors at the West Virginia resort Greenbrier. That day alone, the stock market slid 390 points; the White House was bracing for the mid-August restatement of corporate income, which was expected to increase pressure on Bush to crack down on the kind of people who had assembled at the resort. "It felt like a funeral," recalls Bainwol. Democrats were calling for the scalp of Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Harvey Pitt and citing poll numbers that pointed to big gains for their party in both houses. "They were filled with the euphoria of our misery," Bainwol says of his rivals.

Rove stepped in to stop the bleeding. Sources tell TIME he leaned on executives to support the corporate accounting reforms written by Democratic Senator Paul Sarbanes. Three weeks later, he orchestrated the President's economic summit in Waco, Texas, which amounted to little more than a photo op for CEOs but gave the impression that Bush was focused on the economy. The Justice Department, urged on by G.O.P. political consultants, made several high-profile arrests of corporate chiefs, complete with handcuffs. In August Rove kept his boss traveling during his vacation and talking about the economy.

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