White House senior adviser Karl Rove says the 2008 presidential candidates have been pushed into such an early focus on tactics, fundraising and publicity that they risk a backlash from voters long before the first primary ballots are cast.
"I think it is going to mean that people develop a persona earlier and wear out their welcome earlier than they would," he told The Politico in an interview. "I think there's going to come some point this year where people are going to basically be saying: 'I'm largely disinterested in the contest.' "
But Rove doubts that will slow the campaign. "There's going to be so much momentum from everybody feeling like they need to continue to move around the country and do things and to engage each other," he said.
In the wide-ranging half-hour interview in his West Wing office late last week, Rove also remarked on a shift in relations between the administration and Congress since the Democrats gained power.
"The entire White House is spending a lot more time talking to the Hill and a lot more time seeking feedback and giving them the time that they want," Rove said. He said his own outreach efforts including following up on "a letter to me from a Democrat member" who asked him "to look into a specific issue" that he did not reveal.
"Why this member feels comfortable saying, 'Here's something that I want you to look into,' I can't speak to," Rove said. "But I'm glad that she feels that she can say: 'I'd like you to look into this. I think we can find a way to work together.' "
One of three White House deputy chiefs of staff, Rove is in the unaccustomed position of spectator for a national campaign. Candidates and their aides quietly seek his advice as the reigning GOP strategist, and he is likely to serve as the liaison between the Republican nominee and the White House in the fall of 2008.
During the interview late Friday afternoon, Rove was cheery as ever, teasing his underlings and spooning peanut butter on green apple slices as he spoke clinically about the drubbing Republicans took in November, when they lost the House and Senate.
Since the election, Rove has kept a low public profile but has agreed to a series of speeches that began last night with an appearance at a Lincoln Day Dinner — a staple for local Republican groups — in Springfield, Ill. Asked why he's not in the fetal position after a rebuke like the last election, Rove said that when he started in Texas politics, Republicans had 13 of 150 seats in the Texas House. They now have a comfortable majority.
"I am by nature an optimist," he said. "And, look, I know this is an opportunity. I know why we lost. I know we lost the Congress in part because of Iraq, in part because of the sense of entitlement, in part because of the scandals and in part because of beliefs about congressional earmarks and spending.
"I went out there and made speeches about how we've kept discretionary domestic spending underneath inflation, but the average cat out there saw high-profile things about spending that just sunk in," he said. "All those bad things they thought about Washington came back up."
Lamenting the lightning trajectory of the race to succeed his boss, Rove recalled that Bush had a quiet, productive period after his re-election as Texas governor in November 1998 until he started campaigning the following June. Rove said the current contenders may pay a price for being lured into a shooting war four months earlier.