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Rove is a master of pithy, persuasive answers that are irreverent enough to avoid glibness. About the depths of Bush's beliefs, Rove says, "This is a guy who reads the Bible every day and the whole thing once a year. This is a guy who, at 35 years old, decided, 'My life isn't all it's cracked up to be,' and became a born-again Christian." About the vulnerabilities Bush faces as a front-runner, Rove says, "The good news is, whoever has led by 40 points at this point in the polls has won the nomination." About reporters snooping around for Bush's skeletons, Rove says, "I want them to wear themselves out."
He responds to Dan Quayle's recent suggestion that George W. ranks as a lightweight in terms of deep political thought compared with his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, by making a funny, dismissive face. "It's Dan Quayle," he says.
As Rove goes on to talk about his upbringing, the common thread is always politics. The second son of Louis and Reba Wood Rove, Karl was born in Denver. His family, relocating with his dad's jobs as a mineral geologist, moved to Salt Lake City by the time he reached high school. His parents would later divorce.
His father and sister remember that politics always enthralled him. "He was always gonna be president," Reba Hammond says. "He kept a huge poster above his bed that said, 'Wake up America.' "
At the age of 11, Rove, while visiting an aunt in Minnesota, broke through police barriers at a parade to get the signature of the governor, according to a story his father tells. Rove also collected campaign memorabilia and believes he still has a copy of a fifth-grade paper he wrote on Marxian dialectics.
Early on, Rove showed he had the brainpower to go places. His sister remembers that the family used to rely on Rove's photographic memory for evening entertainment. "The game was 'See if you can stump Karl,' " she says. His older brother, Eric, would read a passage from a book Karl had read the week before. The challenge was to guess which word Eric had intentionally left out.
Rove also understood, early on, the significance of family and reputation. "He knew if you were going to be president, people would look at your family," his sister says. One time, she adds, Karl insisted that the Roves must move out of town immediately "because his reputation had been destroyed."
The precipitating event: Rove's mother, who Hammond says went overboard when it came to housekeeping, had called up the principal of Karl's middle school and prompted him to announce over the loudspeaker, "Karl Rove, please go home and put your jammies in the hamper." (Rove says he has no recollection of the incident.)
In 1969 Rove went to college at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on a scholarship. He never graduated because his enthusiasm for politics soon overtook his schooling. Even then Rove possessed qualities that distinguished him. "He could write well. He had good organizational skills, and he had a very clear love of victory," says J.D. Williams, a political science professor whom Rove admired. "Politics was his varsity sport."
Rove's family was nominally Republican, but that's about it. Rove broke the mold, swinging early and hard into the conservative camp. He supported the troops and the president. "I was living in a relatively conservative state [Utah], and it was hard to sympathize with all those Commies," he says.
By summer 1971 Rove had turned pro. He moved to Washington, D.C., to become the paid executive director of the national College Republicans. Two years later Rove ran in his first election for chairman of the organization. Lee Atwater, the legendary Republican attack-dog strategist who ran President Bush's successful campaigns and later died of a brain tumor, served as Rove's campaign manager in the southern states.
Rove's opponent was Terry Dolan, who would become a national force in the Republican Party when he founded the National Conservative Political Action Committee, a group credited with starting the direct-mail grassroots effort that swept President Reagan into office.
Battling against Dolan for the top slot of the college organization, Rove floated an early version of the "compassionate conservatism" for which Bush has received so much credit this year. "Clearly what was at stake was whether the Republicans were going to be inclusive," recalls Rove, who trounced Dolan, garnering 63 of 68 votes.
David Tyson, who is now state chairman of the Republican Party in West Virginia, knew Rove during his College Republican days. "Even at that stage of the game, he had command of what was going on," Tyson says. "Some of the College Republicans were just there to socialize, but Rove was there to work."
Some say Rove got a little too industrious. With Watergate still fresh in everyone's minds, The Washington Post in 1973 reported allegations that Rove had conducted training sessions to teach College Republicans dirty tricks. To this day, Rove contends that Dolan's camp promulgated the false charges as part of a smear campaign.
Having to face such charges devastated Rove, who had already seen his hero Nixon resign. "I remember it as being very ugly," he says.