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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Though he endorsed the idea of blitzing the country in the last week of the campaign, Bush retained his well-known distaste for spending nights away from his White House pillow. "Bush gets pretty grumpy out there, and Karl absorbs the brunt of it," says an aide to the President. Five days before the election, as Air Force One flew from South Dakota to Indiana, Rove was tugging at the President to make an extra stop in Iowa to help candidates there. Bush was having none of it. "You better have a parachute, Karl," Bush quipped, "because when we get over Iowa, we're throwing you off the plane."

There are many reasons that Bush trusted Rove's advice to wager so much on the midterms. Rove sits in Hillary Clinton's old West Wing office, and that's as good an image as any: he and the President have a long political marriage. Unlike most politicians, who change advisers the way Hollywood stars cycle through spouses, Bush has stuck with Rove even through his most disastrous misjudgments: underestimating John McCain's appeal back in the New Hampshire primaries and failing to take disgruntled Senator Jim Jeffords seriously right up to the day he switched parties and gave the Democrats the Senate back.

The easy caricature of the partnership--the one to which Democrats cling at their peril--casts Rove as "Bush's Brain," the snickering puppeteer who never takes his eye off politics, so Bush can talk highmindedly about principles. But that cartoon misunderstands what a departure the Bush-Rove relationship is from recent Presidents and their operatives. Bush's father famously loved policy but scorned politics, saw campaigning as a necessary evil but banished the political hacks from the West Wing. Even Bill Clinton, as political an animal as they come, ran through advisers like Kleenex. James Carville and Dick Morris and the rest were not making White House policy.

But George W. Bush sees politics and government as seamless; his whole vision of the presidency intertwines the two, and so it makes sense that he keeps his political adviser right next to him. Rather than distance himself from Rove after the 2000 election by sending him to run the R.N.C. or set up shop as an outside consultant, Bush brought him into the West Wing. There are few decisions, from tax cuts to judicial nominations to human cloning, in which Rove is not directly involved. "It's not a real meeting if Karl isn't there," says a senior member of the domestic-policy staff. While Rove does not attend sessions of the President's war council, he regularly weighs in on foreign-policy matters during morning senior staff meetings with the President, offering opinions on everything from Middle East peace to international trade to the Cuban economic embargo. "Karl has the absolute, utter trust of the President of the United States," says Bill Paxon, a prominent G.O.P. operative and former Congressman with close ties to the White House. "That's really what makes him so good."

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