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Rove leaves imprint on campaign strategy

Times Staff Writers

In nearly a decade as the guiding political strategist for George W. Bush and the Republican Party, Karl Rove was often hailed as a genius. He masterminded Bush’s rise to national prominence, directed his two winning presidential campaigns and wrote a campaign playbook for GOP success in Congress and statehouses across the country.

Some Republican strategists, including Rove himself, even dreamed that the system Rove created would make the party invincible, able to dominate American politics for decades.

Now, as Rove prepares to leave the White House at the end of the month, the party that bears his imprint faces a difficult question: Can “Rovism” survive Rove? Will Rove’s unique combination of innovative campaign techniques and polarizing hardball tactics translate into long-term success for his party? Or has it seen its best days?

One thing seems clear: History will rank Rove as one of the most powerful political advisors of modern times. With his influence stretching beyond campaign strategy to policy decisions and the inner workings of the most prosaic of federal agencies, Rove ranks with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Harry Hopkins and President McKinley’s Mark Hanna.

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But looking to the 2008 elections and beyond, even some Republicans say that though some of Rove’s techniques have revolutionized politics and changed the way both parties organize their campaigns, other parts of Rovism contained the seeds of its eventual destruction.

Rove’s relentlessly polarizing tactics and his over-the-top use of government power for political purposes, critics say, were bound to wear out their welcome with a fundamentally pragmatic and moderate electorate.

“Karl will always be known as a brilliant political operative who has a great tactical sense,” said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster, “but tactics only get you so far. Did they change politics forever? No.”

Fabrizio asked: “At the end of the day, is the party better off today than it was when it was taken over six or seven years ago?” He believes Rove’s strategy has alienated middle-of-the-road voters and left the party in worse shape.

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How Rove’s approach could misfire in the evolving political climate was illustrated when Bush, after his reelection, sought converts to the GOP cause by pushing to create private investment accounts in the Social Security system.

In the Rove playbook, the proposal -- with its call for a new “ownership society” -- would attract younger voters distrustful of government and fearful that Washington would not deliver on promised retirement benefits.

The campaign failed. Democrats charged that Bush and the Republicans would weaken or destroy the whole Social Security program.

Rove also played a major role in advocating an immigration-law overhaul that would have offered some illegal immigrants a way to become citizens and would have tightened border security. Hard-line congressional Republicans deserted the White House on the bipartisan effort, which had embodied many of Rove’s ideas.

Rove told reporters Monday that he was “worried” about the effect of that high-profile failure on the party’s courtship of Latino voters, whom he sees as a key to a long-lasting Republican majority.

Rove’s aggressive techniques have also drawn the scrutiny of federal investigators and provided fodder for congressional inquiries, though some of the latter may lose steam with Rove out of government.

Rove’s defenders argue that Republicans’ current troubles -- sagging presidential approval ratings, loss of the House and Senate, a clamorous fight over who the party will nominate to run for president in 2008 -- all stem from a single cause: the deeply unpopular war in Iraq; not from Rove or his methods.

In this view, if it were not for the war, Rove and his party would still be flying high. And once Bush left the White House, Republicans would be well positioned to regain dominance.

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In the short term, at least, Rove’s influence seems likely to survive.

Rove said in an interview Monday that he would take no “formal role” in any of the 2008 campaigns. But Rove acolytes are playing leading roles in every major GOP presidential campaign, and strategists say they plan to adhere to much of the Rove playbook.

“I think we’ll see campaigns employing Karl’s strategy and tactics for years to come,” said Mark McKinnon, who worked with Rove on Bush’s campaigns and now advises the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Rove’s system had three major components.

Using powerful computer systems, modern marketing tools, micro-targeting of supporters and sophisticated get-out-the-vote techniques, he revolutionized the nuts and bolts of campaigning.

Republican strategists said Monday that that would be a lasting piece of Rove’s legacy.

His methods enabled GOP operatives to scour even the most heavily Democratic precincts for potential Republican votes, identifying individuals whose lifestyle habits, consumer preferences and other characteristics made them potential supporters.

The technology gap that opened up between the two parties so concerned Democrats that some leaders such as Harold Ickes -- a close advisor to President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a presidential candidate -- have been constructing a high-priced program to counter the Republicans’ huge Voter Vault database.

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“Imitation is the best flattery,” Rove said Monday. He added that the GOP retained an advantage, despite his party’s losses last year. “We’re keeping a technological step or two ahead of them.”

Another big part of Rovism was making sure federal officials throughout the government understood GOP election priorities and helped party candidates in every way possible, such as decisions on highway contracts and environmental policy.

Other politicians, including Democrats, have used government policymaking to advance their political agendas, but Rove carried the effort to new heights.

Although this strategy may have boosted GOP support in battleground states, it also contributed to controversies that fueled Democratic congressional investigations. Rove has been subpoenaed to testify about what role he had, if any, in the firing of several U.S. attorneys.

Finally, instead of trying to appeal to the independent middle of the electorate, Rove pushed such wedge issues as abortion, same-sex marriage and gun rights to maximize support from the GOP’s conservative base. The same tactics were used to draw into the Republican fold single-issue voters who might otherwise have voted for Democrats or have stayed home.

This was the key to Rove’s overall strategy of building slender but committed majorities -- sometimes called the 50%-plus-1 approach. It was the most controversial weapon in Rove’s arsenal, and the one critics say may spoil his dream of a long-term Republican majority.

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Through the years

Political advisor Karl Rove’s history with George H.W. Bush and son George W. Bush:

1973 -- Rove became chairman of the College Republicans. During his time in Washington, he became a special assistant to Republican National Committee Chairman George H.W. Bush and met George W. Bush.

1977 -- Worked for a political action committee dedicated to electing the elder Bush president in 1980.

1978 -- Advised younger Bush during his unsuccessful Texas congressional campaign.

1980 -- Assisted George H.W. Bush’s unsuccessful presidential campaign.

1994 -- Advisor to George W. Bush’s successful Texas gubernatorial campaign.

1998 -- Advisor to Gov. Bush’s successful reelection campaign.

2000 -- Chief strategist for George W. Bush’s presidential campaign.

2001 -- Senior advisor to newly elected President Bush.

2004 -- Chief strategist for Bush’s reelection campaign.

2005-now -- Assistant to the president, deputy chief of staff and senior advisor to the president.

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Source: Associated Press


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