The Man Who Would Be Kingmaker

Karl Rove has masterminded all of Bush's political victories. Now he faces his toughest challenge: convincing you that the presidential front-runner owns his own soul.

Indeed, in the 28 days following the exploratory-committee event, Bush reports that he has received $7.6 million in donations, $5 million more than any other Republican presidential contender. And he has done so without holding a single fund-raiser.

By the beginning of May, Bush has collected an additional estimated $4 million. A few weeks after the Austin press event, Rove reflects on the media's passivity that day and smiles slyly. Why, he is asked, did no one question Bush's strategy of avoiding any serious national issues?

"Why didn't they do it?" Karl Rove says. "Because they were spellbound." He can't help but grin, apparently in appreciation of his own handiwork.

Then he catches himself. He doesn't want to leave the impression that Bush pulled a fast one. So he emphasizes the governor's obligations to the Texas Legislature, the commitments he has made to state Speaker of the House Pete Laney and Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry.

"He's ready to talk about national issues," Rove says. "But once you start, you can't stop. He doesn't want to do it on the [media's] time frame."

It's a difficult dance for Bush, as well as for Rove. The 48-year-old Austin-based political consultant has received the lion's share of credit for the wildly effective strategy of keeping Bush, for now, "just beyond reach," as Bill Miller, an Austin consultant who has worked with both Republicans and Democrats, puts it.

Yet Rove must strike a balance between sheltering his candidate from premature buffetings by the national press and allowing him to appear hopelessly vague.

Meanwhile, the cynics are starting to catch on. As New York Times writer Berke says several days after the exploratory-committee bash, Bush is "the ultimate Rorschach politician: Voters can see what they want to see."

To Rove, that signals opportunity.

An impish-looking man who has devoted himself full-time to political campaigns since his teens, Rove is a Texas Republican Party mainstay. He got a taste of conservative politics as a college student in Utah during the Vietnam era and came to Texas in the late 1970s to work for the elder Bush years before he became president. He set up shop as a political consultant in Austin in 1981, and since then he has been on the payroll of nearly every successful Republican statewide officeholder today, as well as those of both U.S. senators from Texas.

It is Rove's longtime association with the Bush family that has launched him to national prominence. The nerdish consultant who tries to stay as far behind the scenes as possible is now being heralded as a strategic genius.

Rove knows he has parlayed his relationship with the Bushes into the biggest break of his life. Last year he told a Florida reporter, "Bush is the kind of candidate and officeholder political hacks like me wait for a lifetime to be associated with."

Rove is making the most of that opportunity; he seems like a man who has orchestrated multiple presidential campaigns. In the weeks leading up to the exploratory-committee event, he works his connections behind the scenes to direct a convoy of U.S. and overseas dignitaries to the governor's house.

So at the same time Bush is publicly hemming and hawing about the prospect of his wife and two teenage daughters getting ground up in the meat grinder of a national campaign, Rove keeps a stream of officials -- prominent GOP legislators from some 30 states -- flying into Austin to deliver letters of endorsement for Bush.

"That was all Rove," says Miller, echoing sentiments expressed by six other Austin consultants and lobbyists. "Bush is no slouch. But it's kind of like My Fair Lady and Henry Higgins, and Karl is the Higgins. The thing that stands out about Karl is, he always calibrates. He always knows how many times a can needs to roll over and where it is going to land."

When asked about Rove's involvement in the exploratory-committee event, Mindy Tucker, a committee spokeswoman, seems concerned that the consultant may overshadow the candidate. She emphasizes the Bush campaign's team approach: "This is not an organization that drives on who gets credit."

Specifically, she says, the exploratory-committee announcement was planned by the "press shop" -- the collection of press spokesmen for Bush -- and the "political department." Then she adds, "Of course, the political department, at that time, consisted entirely of Karl Rove."

Rove, for his part, consistently downplays his role. Six months ago he insisted that he would not be chosen for the job of running Bush's presidential campaign. "It won't be me," Rove said. "He needs someone with more national experience."

When asked two and a half months ago about his role in channeling donors and supporters to Bush well before the exploratory committee was unveiled, Rove flashed a mischievous look and said, "People have been telling you a lot of misinformation."

A few weeks later, in another interview, Rove carefully spelled out the limitations of his power. He says he reports to Joe Allbaugh, Bush's official campaign manager, who advised the Oklahoma governor before joining Bush in his first gubernatorial bid and who is set to run the presidential campaign's daily operations.

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