In Rove's Footsteps

In a darkened edit room in downtown Dallas, admaker Scott Howell is tinkering with his latest political firebomb. The ad starts with illegal immigrants running across the border. It then cuts to images of Osama bin Laden and Zacarias Moussaoui. Finally comes the real target of Howell's attack: Harold Ford Jr., the Democrat locked in a close race for the Senate seat in Tennessee. Over an edgy hip-hop soundtrack, the ad castigates Ford for voting against border security and the Patriot Act. "No wonder Harold Ford has been rated the most liberal congressman from Tennessee," the narrator intones. The ad ends with the word "liberal" pulsing on the screen as a shadowy figure walks down a long hallway.

If that ad sounds familiar, it's not surprising--it's a classic in the Karl Rove genre. Howell is one of a group of admakers, strategists and direct-mailers who learned the craft from the architect of George W. Bush's White House--and are now shaping some of the hottest races of 2006. Some are in Texas, making money as consultants; some are in Washington, toiling inside the administration or the party. Most of them will be in contact with Rove as Election Day draws near. None can match their mentor's talent; armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of electoral history, Rove combines a strategic vision for his party with a ruthless will to win. But as his time in the West Wing draws to a close, Rove leaves a legacy well beyond the White House--in the next generation that he's nurtured, and the campaigning style they share.

Todd Olsen is one of Rove's prized pupils. He learned the direct-mail business working at Rove's firm in Austin, Texas, then bought the company--and its invaluable mailing lists--with a partner when Rove switched full time to the Bush campaign in 1999. Today Olsen is refining Rove's microtargeting techniques for candidates across the country. Among them, two of the highest-profile African-Americans running as Republicans: Michael Steele in Maryland and Lynn Swann in Pennsylvania. (A key component of Rove's vision: bringing more African-Americans into the party.) Olsen still uses Rove's old spreadsheets, printing up a giant financial summary on Fridays to analyze how much his mailings have raised from each segment of every list.

Terry Nelson first worked closely with Rove as political director of the Bush '04 campaign. He was struck by Rove's street-level management of the details. "Karl has a great focus on trying to figure out what works in a quantifiable way, not only in terms of message discipline but the discipline of building the organization," says Nelson. "I learned a lot more about spreadsheets under Karl than I ever knew before." Nelson is now senior adviser to Sen. John McCain's political-action committee (widely thought to be the precursor to a 2008 presidential run), managing McCain's extensive campaigning for GOP candidates this fall.

Running the Rove playbook in Washington are Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Sara Taylor, White House political director. Together, they've implemented a strategy that has worked wonders through the last two election cycles. But facing the tides of history and a war-weary electorate, they will need all of Rove's tricks to keep the party in power. Mehlman first started working with Rove in the embryonic Bush campaign in 1999 and later managed Bush's re-election in 2004. "We've learned a lot from each other--from what we've done right and what we've done wrong," he says. "One is that there's no place in America we can't go and unfold our Republican banner. Another is the importance of a strong grass-roots effort--the Amway-like model."

Some of Rove's heirs have become lightning rods, just like their mentor. Scott Howell, who is running ad campaigns in such hot spots as Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia this fall, has drawn Democratic fire for his Rovean tactics. Last week the Webb campaign in Virginia named Howell as one of the "nastiest, most renowned negative campaigners in the business." Howell got his start at the RNC, where he worked with Rove under legendary attack artist Lee Atwater; he later joined Rove's direct-mail business in Austin. (The criticism isn't confined to Democrats. Some GOP operatives say Howell is simply riding Rove's coattails, and question the quality of his work for the Bush campaign in 2004. Howell suggests the sniping is the result of his success.) But it's not all bare-knuckled offense; Howell leavens his attack ads with soft-focus spots featuring his candidates' families. One ad for Mike Bouchard, running for the Senate in Michigan, features the candidate wedged between his teenage daughter and her date. "Isn't this fun?" the candidate deadpans to the hapless boyfriend.

Rove will be watching his protégés closely, as he struggles to retain the GOP's control of Congress. One of his biggest concerns is that some congressional campaigns aren't recruiting as many volunteers as they did last time around. "You have to constantly replenish people. In some instances it has been done very successfully by some candidates," he told NEWSWEEK. "In other instances, it's not been done so well."

Anybody who has worked for Rove knows what that means--he'll be on their backs from now until November. In the early days in Austin, his employees used to stage mock "mutinies," walking out of his office to drink Margaritas whenever the boss drove them too hard. In one of the most important elections of their careers, Rove's heirs won't be walking out. But after Karl is done with them, they might need a drink.