The man behind the curtain of Bush campaign

Inside Politics

Anyone who wants to know what kind of presidential cam-paign Texas Gov. George W. Bush might run should ask Karl Rove.

That is, if you can find him.

For a man who is fast becoming one of the most talked about people in town, Mr. Rove isn't an easy man to pin down. Yes, he's the activist who has done the most to swing a Democratic Texas into the Republican column. And perhaps more important, he is the campaign manager, chief political adviser, and close friend to Governor Bush. But Rove sticks to what he knows, and that's running campaigns, not photo ops.

"He's the Merlin of the Texas Republican Party," says Bill Cryer, who served as press secretary for former Gov. Ann Richards (D) and is now a spokesman for a high-tech company in Austin. "He's the wizard behind the curtain.... The last thing he wants is to be on stage, taking attention from his boss. And that's the way to do this business."

His defenders call him intelligent and disciplined - a pragmatic conservative who is equal parts ambition and deference. Rivals use other words: "Dirtmeister," says one Democrat, privately. "Rottweiler," says another.

But friends and foes agree on one point: Rove has extensive experience in all aspects of politics, and his past campaigns show a white-knuckled control of their message.

"It's because of Karl's planting seeds years ago that Republicans have a bumper crop of candidates now," says Mark McKinnon, a consultant who has worked primarily with Democrats but is now preparing the media campaigns for a Bush presidential run. "Karl's not easily distracted. He's more focused than anyone I've known."

Bill Miller, a political consultant who has worked with and against Rove, puts it another way: "His campaigns are a very controlled aggression."

Raised in Colorado, Rove appears to have been born conservative. While most of his generation was dropping out of school and protesting the Vietnam War, Rove was dropping out to run for national president of the College Republicans.

It was while working for the National Republican Party in Washington in the early 1970s that Rove met then-National Republican Committee chairman George Bush, and in 1974, he met Mr. Bush's son George.

Rove's reputation in Texas politics, however, stems from his days in the 1982 election of Republican Bill Clements as governor. From that day, with a new business in the powerful new medium of direct-mail fund-raising, Rove has helped organize a Republican sweep of every major office in the state, from US senators to the three most recent members of the Texas Supreme Court. This reputation has been good for business, bringing corporate and political clients from as many as 23 states, and as well as the Moderate Party of Sweden.

"Basically, as a party election draws near, you head to Karl," says Fred Meyer, former state GOP chairman, now chairman of Aladdin Industries in Nashville. "He knows and understands the state, the issues, and the political process. He's a genius."

Standing firm

Rove hasn't shied from fighting the establishment in his party. For instance, he was instrumental in replacing one state GOP chairman - a hard-line Christian conservative - with a more moderate one. And when former US Attorney General Dick Thornburgh refused to pay Rove's $200,000 fee for Rove's direct-mail work in Mr. Thornburgh's failed 1990 Pennsylvania senatorial campaign, Rove sued him and won. (Arguing on Thornburgh's behalf was an earnest young lawyer and US solicitor general named Kenneth Starr.)

In person, Rove is often self-deprecating, and he usually refuses to speak on camera. (Rove declined to be interviewed for this story, and his spokeswoman says, "Karl hates these stories.")

Even when Rove does grant interviews for the record, conversations tend to be cut short by the ring of his everpresent cell phone. Bush's inner circle of advisers - people like former Secretary of State George Schultz, Stanford University provost Condoleeza Rice, and Indianapolis Mayor Steven Goldsmith - know they must first go through Rove to get to Bush.

Those who know him say he operates on a few key rules. Know your client and choose a format that works to his or her benefit. Develop three or four central ideas that define your campaign (jobs, education, smaller government) and stick to them. Most important: Use humor to deliver your points. Reporters may remember what you said, but the voting public will remember how you said it.

"Karl's very flexible in running a pretty modern campaign, one that talks directly to the target audience," says Tony Proffitt, former spokesman for retired Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. "He's not from the far right or the far left, he's from the middle, and that's where America is."

This folksy style also comes out in Bush's relations with the press. Under Rove's hand, Bush rarely gives interviews, but the governor has been known to call up Texas reporters at odd hours of the day to shoot the breeze, often about baseball. In practice, this gives reporters little time or inclination to ask hardball political questions.

New ballgame

But some activists note that the dynamics and pressure of a state campaign are different from the human cockfight of a national presidential primary, where your worst enemy today may be your best ally tomorrow. And the highly personal scrutiny of a national press corps will be markedly different from that of local beat reporters.

"It's the difference between playing men's slow-pitch baseball and going up against Roger Clemens in the major leagues," says Paul Begala, who helped run the Clinton presidential campaign in 1992. He and James Carville also helped Democratic candidate Harris Wofford to defeat Rove's client, Dick Thornburgh, in 1990. "You can read about it in books, but there's nothing on earth that can prepare you for that, except just doing it."

Mr. Begala then pays Rove a Beltway compliment: "In Rove, the Republicans will have the best staff in the 2000 campaign. But in Al Gore, Democrats will have the best candidate."

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