WHY BUSH IS OVER THE MOON

Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's chief political strategist, is known for hamming it up, whistling, humming and occasionally breaking into song. But he seemed especially jolly last week at a dinner, held at a PGA golf-and-spa resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., for about 40 Republican heavy hitters. The mood of the GOP fat cats, so-called Rangers and Pioneers who have raised more than $200,000 and $100,000, respectively, for the president's re-election bid, had improved greatly since a similar gathering last fall, when worries over the economy and the war in Iraq had made them querulous with Rove. Now, with the stock market climbing and Saddam in jail, the contributors mostly tossed softballs to the president's top politico. Was Howard Dean, one questioner wanted to know, the best (i.e., weakest) Democrat for Bush to face in November? Rove indulged in some casual titillation. If voters were surprised by some of Dean's over-the-top comments, they should hold on to their hats, said Rove. He hinted broadly that the Bush-Cheney campaign had unearthed some bigger Dean whoppers in the public record, and that it would be just a matter of time before they emerged in the press.

It has become something of a joke inside the White House that Rove is a master of the universe, the all-knowing, all-seeing guiding hand behind everything. "Karl's been a busy guy these days. I don't know how he does it," remarked a senior administration official dryly. The White House aide was making fun of press speculation that Rove had plotted Bush's showy secret trip to Baghdad over Thanksgiving as well as his splashy New Year's initiatives: sweeping immigration reforms that will legalize millions of undocumented aliens and a plan to build a space station on the moon and send humans to Mars. Helping immigrants and extending man's reach farther into outer space have long been the personal goals of Bush, say his advisers. Still, there can be no doubt that Rove exercised considerable influence over the timing and selling of Bush's programs. While the Democrats tear each other down as the primaries draw near, Rove wants to position the president as a visionary who soars above petty politics.

Whether Bush can change the immigration laws or expand the space program remains to be seen. He must convince Congress, which means wading into the special-interest swamp. But with Rove's helping hand, Bush has already subtly changed the Republican Party.

To hear the Democrats tell it, Bush campaigned in 2000 as a moderate but has governed as a radical right-winger. Bush's aides, however, believe that the president, after working hard to shore up his base, has stolen a march on the Democrats. They would never quite put it this way, at least not for attribution, but Bush "the compassionate conservative" has borrowed the old triangulation trick from Bill Clinton. After being crushed in the 1994 midterm elections, Bush's predecessor needed to change the tax-and-spend, big-government image of the Democratic Party. So he baldly declared "The era of big government is over," and successfully pushed for welfare reform and deficit reduction. By the same token, Bush wants to change the image of the GOP as the heartless, favor-the-rich, starve-the-poor party. With a minimum of grumbling from conservatives, he managed to add a whole new entitlement program, drug benefits for the elderly, that will significantly increase the burden of the welfare state. The president also wants to increase funding for his No Child Left Behind educational programs. Bush has shrunk taxes during his first term, but certainly not the size of government.

There is a cost, of course. At the dinner for wealthy GOP supporters in Florida, Rove was slightly defensive when asked about the ballooning federal deficit. Last week White House aides took pains to say that the new man-in-space ventures would be paid for, in part, by cutting from other, existing NASA programs. The shuttle program will be phased out to free up funds for new manned-space-exploration vehicles. Some conservatives were not happy about welcoming illegal aliens, arguing that the last amnesty (under President Reagan in 1986) had the effect of luring in an even larger flood of illegals. To reward them again with green cards, say the critics, is to invite a tidal wave that will swamp schools and social services and increase crime. But the White House is swearing that it will step up border patrols to stem the tide, thus enhancing homeland security at the same time. The GOP is enlisting the support of small businesses, which welcome new sources of cheap labor, to argue that immigration reform is also an economic booster. (Bush's economic good tidings dimmed a bit last week with the announcement that only a thousand new jobs were created in December, as opposed to the 150,000 expected.)

The real battle between the Democrats and Republicans is less over the size and role of government than it is over values and cultures. The Blue State-Red State divide seems as wide as ever, with Democrats in the cities and along the coasts pro-choice and more accepting of gays, and Republicans in the heartland more openly religious and socially conservative. Despite the rising body count in Iraq, the Republicans still seem to have the edge on national security, bolstered by the warming trends in Libya, Iran and even North Korea. In a close race, the conventional wisdom suggests that both parties will shift to the center to look for independents, but the swing voter may be a dwindling breed. According to Al Cardenas, a big Bush fund-raiser and former head of the Florida GOP, Bush strategists believe "there are not going to be many votes up for grabs [because] the universe of undecided voters is so much smaller than it has ever been."

The Bushies understand that character and leadership are more likely to be decisive than policy or programs, which is one reason they have been nervously awaiting the publication of a new book that paints an unflattering portrait of the early Bush administration. In "The Price of Loyalty," former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind quotes Bush's first Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, as likening President Bush at cabinet meetings to "a blind man in a room full of deaf people." O'Neill also dismissed the administration's 2002 tax cuts as a cynical political ploy. Administration officials were quick to point out that O'Neill had been fired by Bush in December 2002. An administration official told NEWSWEEK, "We didn't pay attention to the crazy things he said while he was here, so why would we start now after he's gone?" (O'Neill has told friends he regrets his comment but will have to "live with it.")

At a small meeting with big fund-raisers last week, Bush seemed to be in good spirits. According to one of the donors, Bush said he wouldn't be seeking a second term if he wasn't enjoying himself because "life's too short." He has at least three reasons to feel comfortable: an approval rating of 54 percent in the new NEWSWEEK Poll, a campaign war chest of $100 million and the machinations of Karl Rove. To the moon indeed.

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