Bush: Is The Problem The Message Or The Messenger?

The heat is on political guru Karl Rove to reverse Bush's slide

For months, Karl Rove, chief strategist for Texas Governor George W. Bush, warned cocky Republicans that the Presidential race would tighten by Labor Day. Well, things turned out even worse than he had anticipated, and a Bush lead that once was as big as 19 points has washed away. Now, frantic Republicans want the high command in Austin, Tex., to change course and do whatever it takes for their candidate to stop looking flummoxed and flat-footed.

Bush's latest setback--the uproar over a health-care campaign ad that seemed subliminally to equate Gore's supposed bureaucratic buddies with "rats"--is merely the most recent episode in the monthlong skid for the Texan. But despite the rocky patch, don't look for major midcourse corrections from Rove. The cerebral, 49-year-old political consultant is not known for major shifts in the heat of battle. "When the dogs are on him," says Dallas media consultant Rob Allyn, "he just gets stronger at keeping the discipline." That's not to say Rove isn't doing any fine-tuning. Just as he did after Bush lost the New Hampshire primary back in February, Rove is putting his candidate in informal settings, substituting town meetings for auditorium speeches, and hauling out emblematic "real people" to sell policy prescriptions, such as Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut. According to Rove, it's still "a recipe for victory."

Is he right? Rove, an Austin political and direct-mail consultant who has never before directed a national campaign, is no doubt facing his most serious test. And some GOP veterans have been lobbying W. for months to add more Washington talent. But Rove retains Bush's full confidence. "A team that has gotten you this far is not a team you throw over," says U.S. Freightways CEO Samuel K. Skinner, former White House chief of staff and Transportation Secretary under Bush's father.

Bush allies in the business community are not all convinced. "I'm not impressed with the way that the campaign is reacting to events on a daily basis," says Franklin E. Eck, CEO of Advance Drainage Systems Co. in Columbus, Ohio. "It's a little dangerous when you vest too much in one person."

A geologist's son who lived in Colorado, Nevada, and Utah during the years he was growing up, Rove cut his teeth in politics as the Watergate-era chairman of the College Republicans. He has worked for the Bush family off and on for 23 years and has been George W.'s political guru for the past decade. Initially, Rove won raves for his blueprint for Bush's Presidential campaign. The key elements: moving his man to the center by stressing government's positive role in boosting social mobility, distancing himself from an unpopular GOP congressional majority, stressing Bush's outsider credentials and Texas reforms, and reaching out to women, Hispanics, and other groups formerly cool to the Republican message.

But the political landscape has been transformed dramatically in the past month, and now Rove is feeling the heat. He spent the weekend on the phone and at the computer keyboard pacifying fretting fund-raisers and nervous bigwigs. "I'm not saying there's not anxiety out there," says one of Rove's colleagues. "But the wheels are not coming off."

EBBING EDGE. Rove agrees. He believes that Gore remains vulnerable as a staunch defender of President Clinton and as a participant in questionable 1996 fund-raising practices. "On first glance, they have an advantage," says Rove. "Over the long haul, they will not do well."

The polls don't necessarily provide any comfort. According to the most recent opinion surveys, voters appear to be much more receptive to Gore's policy solutions in education, prescription-drug benefits, and Social Security. On taxes, they favor Bush's plan but consider the issue a low-priority item. Bush also no longer has any edge in either leadership or character--and has a perceived deficit in intelligence.

In fact, some Bush-watchers say the problem is not Rove's strategic vision but his candidate. "Karl is a brilliant theoretician," says Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who has crossed swords with Rove in Texas. "The idea of George W. Bush, as conceived by Karl Rove, is unbeatable: A Republican who is conservative but not crazy, who could triangulate the Republican Congress, would be the Clinton of the next generation. But it requires an intellectual heft and vigor that Bush doesn't have."

Nevertheless, Rove remains convinced that voters desire change after eight years of Clinton-Gore and that Gore has his own shortcomings as a candidate. Together, these could be a winning combination for Bush. The pivotal events could well be the upcoming round of fall debates. The irony: that a Rove campaign aimed at locking up the election before the debates must now rely on them to put his candidate over the top.