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Pure Horserace: Rove's Mixed Legacy

Karl Rove's resignation signals, at least for the time being, the political guru's exit from presidential politics. For all of his success in getting President Bush elected to the White House twice, he has suffered several legislative and political setbacks in the past three years, most notably the GOP's heavy losses in the 2006 elections. But his career as the president's most trusted adviser has also permanently changed the way political campaigns are waged — and may serve as a cautionary tale for political consultants and presidents alike.

Rove has served as a mentor to several Republican strategists whose careers have a long way to go. Some have already made a name for themselves. Scott Howell, who once worked for Rove's direct-marketing firm in Texas, achieved a certain measure of infamy late in the 2006 campaign with an ad targeting Democrat Harold Ford Jr., who was running for a Senate seat in Tennessee. Critics said it played on racial fears about white women and black men, but it may have played a role in tipping that race toward Republican Bob Corker. Other Rove disciples haven't fared as well. Terry Nelson worked with Rove in 2004 on President Bush's re-election, but was unable to use that experience to keep John McCain at the top of this year's GOP pack. He resigned from the campaign in July.

But even people who didn't work under Rove, including those who do not share his political philosophy, are likely to look to his playbook when planning future campaigns — after all, it's not every day that a behind-the-scenes consultant inspires a new adjective, "Rovian." Rove is said to be the brains behind the strategy the Bush campaign used in 2004 against John Kerry, tackling an opponent's strengths (in his case, Kerry's war record) head-on. He was also a master of the spreadsheet, taking demographic information and combining it with technology to target voters with expert precision.

While Rove was an undisputed success when running a campaign, his record is far more mixed when it comes to implementing policy. The Bush administration never made serious headway on two of its signature proposals: a complete overhaul of Social Security and an immigration plan that included a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. The weight of other policies, particularly the Iraq war and the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, played a large part in the Republican Party losing control of Congress in 2006.

During Rove's tenure, many victories, both legislative and political, were won by the smallest of margins. That tactic inherently resulted in many people, even Republican members of Congress, feeling left out. It likely played a large role in fostering the current political environment, a fact many Democratic candidates seem aware of as they try to convince voters that they're the real "change candidate" who will put an end to partisan bickering.

When it comes to enacting a political agenda from within the West Wing, Rove may be the last of his kind for a while. But for better or worse, the success of his election tactics can't be denied — which means that anyone following in his footsteps may lead a candidate to victory, but could wind up out of the loop when their candidate takes office. That is, until the next election rolls around. — David Miller

Final Reflections On Ames: Mitt Romney basked in the glow of his Iowa straw poll victory yesterday, chiding candidates like Rudy Giuliani for failing to compete and touting the win as a demonstration of his campaign's organizational ability in the state. There's no doubt this was a good win for Romney's campaign and helps solidify his emergence as the front-runner for the first-in-the-nation caucus state at the moment. But what does it mean in the big picture? Some thoughts:

  • Two Tickets Out? If Romney did what he had to in order to meet expectations for the event (and he did), Sam Brownback fell oh-so-short of doing the same. Brownback's campaign had engaged both Romney and Mike Huckabee in Iowa during the weeks leading up to the straw poll and spent a significant portion of his resources on organizing for the event, so finishing third has to be a disappointment for his camp — even though he trailed Huckabee by just a few hundred votes.

    Brownback has said his third-place showing is enough to help him go forward, but Huckabee's surprising showing is likely to take some air out of Brownback's balloon. Both candidates are appealing to the same slice of the GOP electorate — and when candidates like Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson get thrown into the mix, there's probably only room for one of them. Don't count Brownback out yet, but it's going to be awfully tough to raise funds off of a third-place showing in Ames.

    Huckabee may find some wind beneath his wings and his performance there is particularly impressive when you consider how organic his support appears. Huckabee told CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod that his campaign spent less the $100,000 on the straw poll, a fraction of what some others spent on the event. His organization is far smaller and, well, less organized than several of those he beat — and he has even been the subject of attack ads in Iowa by the anti-tax organization, Club For Growth.

  • GOP Malaise? More than 23,000 votes were cast in the 1999 straw poll, but just over 14,000 cast a ballot for any candidate Saturday. Yes, we've heard all the arguments about why we shouldn't make too much of this drop-off: Big-name candidates like Giuliani, Thompson and McCain did not participate, the heat suppressed the vote, the party cracked down on out-of-state voters, the state fair was taking place in Des Moines, etc. But we're not buying those arguments to the tune of nearly 10,000 fewer votes.

    First off, less than half of the estimated 30,000-plus crowd that showed up at Ames actually voted. And, according to reports, a total of 26,000 tickets were sold by the state party. Yes, many were from out-of-state, particularly the loud contingent supporting Ron Paul and many Tommy Thompson supporters who made the trip from neighboring Wisconsin. The party insisted on tightening up the voting procedures to stop any non-Iowan from voting. But neither that nor the oppressive heat fully explains why so few who felt drawn to the event actually participated in it.

    Supporters of Giuliani, Thompson and McCain may have attended and not voted or perhaps not shown up at all. That does little to explain the gap between tickets purchased and votes cast, especially considering the fact that all those candidates remained on the ballot. We're not suggesting that there's a simple explanation to the small vote total, but it does fit nicely with an ongoing theme of this campaign — malaise within the GOP and a not-insignificant amount of dissatisfaction with the field.

  • Does The Straw Poll Still Matter? For Romney and Huckabee, it matters quite a bit. The bigger question is whether it will look like it mattered come January. Party officials haven't pulled many punches when it comes to the no-shows, arguing that Iowa Republicans will remember who came to play their game and who did not.

    But none of those candidates fit the Iowa electorate very well in any case. Giuliani has found resistance from social conservatives who view the former New York City mayor with suspicion — and he has sent mixed signals about his seriousness in the state. John McCain's support of this year's failed immigration reform bill didn't do anything to help him among the base of the party as a whole but probably hurt him more in Iowa than places like New Hampshire. His campaign is running on fumes, and Iowans may also remember his decision to skip their state in 2000. Thompson, who may fit well in the state eventually, still remains effectively on the sidelines as Romney and others gobble up the support and organizers crucial to the caucuses.

    Should Romney win Iowa, the straw poll will likely live on as a fund-raising vehicle for the state party in election cycles to come. If a Giuliani or Thompson manage to prevail, we may have witnessed the end of what has become an Iowa GOP institution. — Vaughn Ververs

    Going After Edwards? The past few weeks in Iowa have been dominated by the Republicans' straw poll, but the end of that contest has created a bit of a political vacuum — and Hillary Clinton has stepped in to fill it by airing the first TV ad of her campaign in the crucial early-voting state.

    But unlike what we've seen from Clinton in recent debates, the ad doesn't make a point of touting Clinton's experience. Instead, from its music to its visuals, it tries to portray Clinton as a caring woman who has "spent her life standing up for people others don't see." The bulk of the ad shows clips from a Clinton speech in which she says various groups of people have "become invisible" to the current administration, including those without health care, single moms without child care and veterans lacking in benefits.

    Clinton's talk of an invisible set of Americans doesn't sound too far removed from the theme of "two Americas" John Edwards has employed in both of his campaigns for president. Her mentioning of single mothers sounds meant to refute the claim, made by Elizabeth Edwards, that Clinton isn't as strong of an advocate for women as she should be.

    The new spot certainly isn't an attack ad, but Clinton is addressing the same issues upon which Edwards has built his campaign. — David Miller

    Editor's note: Pure Horserace is a daily update of political news as interpreted by the political observers at Click here to sign up for the e-mail version.

    By David Miller and Vaughn Ververs