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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But come the final weeks of battle, it was Rove's ability to deliver the President, and Bush's to deliver the voters, that, when the results were finally in, left political experts in both parties speechless. The idea of sending Bush himself out into the midterm storms wasn't a last-minute decision made because Rove and the pollsters saw something that made them think the races were suddenly winnable. It stretched all the way back to a series of meetings last January of Rove's Strategic Initiatives office (nicknamed "strategery" after the Saturday Night Live parody of Bush's malapropisms). Bush's top aides debated whether to keep the President above the fray during the midterms--"to protect him," as Rove says--or to put his wartime popularity to political use. They decided on the latter and took their recommendation to Bush. "As far as Bush was concerned, the real risk would have been to sit on his hands when he had the opportunity to make the difference in some very close races. He and Karl were completely in synch."

So the two were prepared when Congressman Saxby Chambliss agreed to Rove's call to challenge Georgia incumbent Max Cleland, a war veteran and conservative Democrat who had voted with the President on his $1.3 trillion tax cut. Chambliss had demands beyond the buckets of money Rove promised: "I also need the President to come to Georgia twice," Chambliss said. Rove looked at him, perplexed. "Can he only come to the state two times?" "No, Karl, I mean twice a month," Chambliss said. It was an outsize request, but Bush almost lived up to it. He visited Georgia six times--including two stops just before Election Day, which local politicians believe sealed the upset.

In the final days of the campaign, Rove was not only penciling in new stops on the Bush itinerary but was also tearing up the Vice President's schedule, sometimes hours before an event, to reroute him to a more politically potent place. When Chambliss started getting traction with the homeland-security issue, Cheney was there to hit that theme hard. When John Sununu needed help in Nashua, N.H., and wanted Bush to touch down there, Rove BlackBerried the campaign strategist: "Can't do, will get back to you." Two days later, he had the First Lady there instead. The narrowcasting was so refined that Energy Secretary Spence Abraham, a former Michigan Senator, visited a Florida senior home in which half the residents hailed from his home state.

On Election Day the Republican machine was prepared to be nimble. The R.N.C. put in place a 72-hour plan that tried to match the labor unions' success in getting voters to the polls. "We decided to change the culture of Republicans running just on money," says future House majority leader Tom DeLay. "We decided to run a ground war."

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