Karl Rove's Reputation May Be on the Line

Nov. 6, 2006 — -- If the legacy of President Bush is on the line in this Tuesday's elections, so too may be the legacy of the man sometimes called "Bush's Brain."

Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist, is trying to win one last -- and perhaps most difficult -- national election for his old friend.

Rove is revered and reviled. There are documentaries, books, Web sites and even condoms dedicated to him. He was featured on the TV show "South Park" and named the most fascinating person of 2004 by ABC's Barbara Walters.

Walters asked Rove what he thought his reputation was.

"Evil Rasputin," he told her.

Republican strategist Marc McKinnon knew right away that Rove would be the most famous political consultant in history.

"I thought he would five minutes after I met him," McKinnon said. "He is a walking mainframe computer and the most talented consultant I've ever worked with -- and I've worked with a lot of the best."

Rove helped pull off surprise victories in 2000, 2002 and 2004 for President Bush, who calls him "boy wonder" and "the architect."

"He's won three national elections working with Bush. This is the big one, though," said Mark Halperin, ABC News political director and co-author of "The Way to Win." "It's going to determine whether George Bush's last few years in office can be productive. It's also going to help determine George Bush's legacy."

Democratic strategist James Carville believes Rove's reputation hangs in the balance.

"He wins this, he comes out of this with minimal losses, and his reputation will be cemented in history," Carville said. "If he comes out of here with some big losses, then you might have Republicans 10 years from now spitting on the legacy of Karl Rove."

From his West Wing perch, Rove decides where to send the president in these final days and what the message should be.

Rove pioneered a controversial strategy: Instead of targeting swing voters, rev up the base and attack the other side.

"Republicans have a post 9/11 view of the world and Democrats have pre-9/11 view of the world," Rove said in one widely publicized speech.

"Karl Rove and his colleagues believe that the country's basically divided," Halperin said. "What he wants to do is turn out his tribe, his side."

Tuesday's elections are perhaps the toughest test of that strategy.

"I think a lot of what he does is ugly and bad for the American political system," said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum. "I think that his strategy, the Rove-ian strategy, which demonizes the 48 or 49 percent of people who are on the other side … that is ultimately very bad for the democratic process."

Halperin says history will decide.

"People are going to look back and say that George Bush and Karl Rove maybe divided the country, but they enacted conservative policies that worked," he said. "Or they're going to look back and say this was eight years of a divisive presidency that divided the country, took it in the wrong direction. History's going to make that judgment."

Rove refused to grant an interview for this story. When asked recently by ABC News Radio if this was his last campaign, he said, "I'm focused on this one. Let the future take care of itself."