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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Bush often brags that he does not look at polls, but that is in part because he has Rove to do it for him. The two men delight in the game--a fact both the President and his staff go to great lengths to obscure. "They both love this stuff, and so they talk about it in shorthand. It's like talking about baseball," says a senior White House official. And it showed throughout the campaign: "The President knew what was in nearly every ad. He was getting that from Karl." He had a junkie's appetite for the polling data: "Bush wanted to know the polling numbers," says Brooks Kochvar, campaign manager for new Indiana Congressman Chris Chocola. "It wasn't just the top line either. He wanted to know where the undecideds stood and what was going on in depth in the polls."

The question now, after such a triumph, is whether it will go to Rove's head so that he loses his grip, like many a political genius before him. His successes have guaranteed that there are plenty of people who would love to see him fail. And more than one pundit has rubbed his hands in anticipation of Rove's overreading the message of Bush's success. But here again, it may be the nature of his relationship with Bush that saves him from the agonies of arrogance.

Bush has always known how to keep Rove in his place. To this day, Rove tells the story of seeing George W. for the first time in 1973, when he was sent by Bush's dad to deliver the car keys. Rove sounds as though he had just encountered the reincarnation of James Dean, leather jacket and all. "He was cool," says Rove, who can still come across as the nerd in high school with the pocket protector and briefcase. Where Bush was the carefree product of a loving family, with a Yale degree and money to burn, Rove was the opposite. His father, an oil company geologist, moved the family constantly. Rove's parents divorced, and his mother eventually killed herself. Rove attended three different universities before quitting without a degree to go into politics full time.

For all the differences between Rove and Bush, their similarities bound them from the start. They bonded over their shared disdain for the snobbery of East Coast elites and the culture of permissiveness of the 1960s. They both share a faith in their own instincts: Bush boasts about trusting his gut and the clear simple wisdom of the West Texas oil patch. Rove, the college dropout turned academic, cultivates an intellectual version of the same, considering himself a Natural--a self-taught big brain who devours histories and political tomes and applies what he learns to the art of winning races.

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