Baited by reporters, Rove, the outgoing senior advisor to President Bush, declared in a series of farewell interviews last week that Sen. Clinton (D-N.Y.) is “a prohibitive favorite” to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
But he hastened to add that she seems “fatally flawed,” elaborating in his interview with Rush Limbaugh that no front-runner “has entered the primary season with negatives as high as she has in the history of modern polling.”
Just as she reveled in an earlier White House attack on her first television ad, Clinton tried to capitalize on the sudden shower of attention from Rove.
“I don't think Karl Rove's going to endorse me,” she said at Sunday’s debate in Des Moines, clearly enjoying each word. “That becomes more and more obvious. But I find it interesting he's so obsessed with me.”
Who’s obsessed? A few hours later, Clinton’s campaign took the extremely unusual step of issuing a news release with the headline, “Rove: Wrong Again,” rebutting a comment he had made on NBC’s “Meet the Press” about her vulnerability on the health-care issue.
Republicans chortled, with one key official alleging that the document could inflame the small-business community. “Nice to know she’s easy to get to,” the official said.
Although there are lots of conspiracy theories, the back-and-forth has a clear logic, according to top officials in both parties:
-- The zingers help each of them with skeptical members of their own party’s base. Many liberals are mad at Clinton because of Iraq and because they think she’s too centrist. Many conservatives are mad at Rove for trying to foist comprehensive immigration reform on them.
-- Clinton has always used the Republican attack machine as a foil and this time she’s doing it with humor, which seems to be working for her. Rove just reloads her ammo. This also paints her as the singularly formidable candidate in the race, a reassuring portrait when you’re running against someone who’s more charismatic and is drawing huge crowds.
--Rove gets to talk about something besides an imperiled presidency and stir up Republicans, who haven’t had much to get excited about. He also shows himself to be mischievous and quotable at a time when he’s about to go on the speaking circuit.
So get used to it. It’s mutually beneficial, and they’re likely to keep doing it.
A lot of people in both parties, however, remain suspicious about all this.
Rove has been much more reticent when it comes to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Some Republicans regard Obama as a potentially more formidable general-election candidate because he has less baggage.
During an interview with Politico, Rove waved off questions about Obama, saying, “I’ve said more than I should have already.” On “Meet the Press,” he told guest moderator David Gregory much the same thing: “I’ve said enough.”
That has led to lots of speculation that Rove is playing a kind of three-dimensional chess that only he understands.
On Sunday, an article in the Los Angeles Times speculated that Rove might be using reverse psychology. The piece resurrected an insight from Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist of Bush-Cheney ’04, who said at a Harvard University post-mortem on the election: “Whomever we attacked was going to be emboldened in Democratic primary voters' minds. So we started attacking John Kerry a lot in the end of January because we were very worried about John Edwards.”
One informed Democrat said it’s a lot simpler than that: “She is rsing in both primary and general election polls and he wants to arrest that rise.”
That seems right, but Rove loves a mystery. Pressed on “Meet the Press” about why he was going after Clinton and not Obama, he brought up the L.A. Times theory. “You know, I read that in the L.A. Times this morning,” Rove said. “Those guys, really, out in L.A. have got to get clued in. I mean, come on.”
But he was smiling.
The Politico’s Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.