KEY PARTY OPERATIVE

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When Karl Rove came to Texas in 1977, the state had not had a Republican governor in more than a century, Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and GOP morale was about as low as it could go.

Today, Mr. Rove is a key operative in a resurgent Republican Party that has made huge strides in the Lone Star State. A direct-mail whiz who has raised millions of dollars for former President Bush, and United States Sens. Phil Gramm (R) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), Rove has become the leading political consultant in what used to be a Democratic stronghold.

``Karl Rove is the Republican Party in Texas,'' says Mark McKinnon, a consultant who works primarily for Democrats.

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The son of a geologist, Rove downplays his own influence, saying there are about ``10 gazillion'' Republicans who are more powerful than himself, but political observers point out that Rove has done much of the Texas GOP's fund-raising. By his own estimates, Rove has raised between $10 million and $20 million for Republican candidates in the state.

Rove came of age with a group of young Republicans who have changed the party. In 1973, Rove was elected head of the College Republicans. His campaign in the South was managed by an aggressive South Carolinian who played guitar with singer Percy Sledge. His name was Lee Atwater.

During his stint at GOP headquarters, Rove met George Bush, then head of the GOP. Rove introduced Mr. Atwater to Mr. Bush, and Atwater later became chairman of the Republican National Committee and a fixture in the Reagan White House. (He died in 1991.) Rove was the first person Bush hired when he made a bid for the presidency in 1980. Now advising George W. Bush (the former president's son) in his race for governor, Rove says his candidate will win, ``no question about it.''

The younger Bush, the general partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, will depend on Rove's direct-mail expertise to help raise the $12 million to $15 million he will need if he is to defeat Gov. Ann Richards (D).

Sitting in the bustling offices of Karl Rove & Co., a dozen blocks from the Texas Capitol, Rove says direct mail depends on ``the right list, with the right message, at the right time. It has to grab attention, and it has to be based in fact and need.''

He believes conservative, white Democrats are turning to the GOP in Texas because they are ``fed up with the liberal leadership of the Democrats on the state and national level.''

Rove could easily be an operative in Washington. But he prefers to stay in Austin. ``I have no interest whatsoever in being in Washington, D.C.,'' he said. ``I'm happy right here.''

The Texas GOP is happy to have him.

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