I caught up with Karl Rove, at least by phone, in Austin. In the public’s mind, he’s become so identified with President George W. Bush that it’s easy to forget he remains one of the savviest political analysts, in part because of his encyclopedic memory of Republican races.
On the day Tim Pawlenty announced his exploratory committee I asked Rove what he thought of the former Minnesota governor’s pre-campaign. He responded, “I think he is much improved from a year ago.” He praised Pawlenty for a “much sharper, crisper message” and, more importantly, for “a better explanation of his record as governor.” But Rove resists the notion that we know exactly who will be in and out of the race. There are only three candidates with exploratory committees, but, he explained, “There are a dozen or more thinking about it.” He lists Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Indiana Gov.Mitch Daniels, Rep.Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Mike Huckabee in this group. And then he jokes, “And don’t forget Donald Trump!” In short, he made the case that at this stage “running” means that “in one shape or another that they are putting themselves in a position” to run, if they want to.
He doesn’t rule out a late decider, but he says bluntly, “I think December is too late.”
In the Internet era, Rove told me, the process of introducing and garnering support for candidates, is “sped up,”a s seen in Sen. Scott Brown’s race. Rove recalled that, with the help of the Internet, Brown in the closing days of the campaign “was taking in more money than he could spend.” But still, Rove said that “the nature of the early contests and the long race” put pressure on candidates to give themselves some lead time. He observed that when a candidate travels around the country, “People make a psychic commitment to a candidate.” That attachment may be hard to break when a new face belatedly enters the race. Moreover, he noted that candidates who have entered late “may have said repeatedly they are not running and why.” Those comments (“I am not ready,” he suggested would be one) may come back to haunt a candidate. And, of course, if you wait too long “the people who are going to help you . . . will be spoken for.”
So what are the keys to winning the nomination? Rove rattles off four.
First, the winner will “demonstrate that he can unify all those elements — social conservatives, populists, fiscal conservatives” and also reach beyond the base as Ronald Reagan did with the Reagan Democrats. He explained of the need to reach beyond the base, “That is why language is important and clarity is important.” However, he cautioned that it’s wrong to pigeonhole distinct groups: “These groups share a common agenda,” he noted. The presence of so many social conservatives in the Tea Party movement, he observed, “is a sign of enormous maturity and confidence” of a group of voters who, without sacrificing their own core beliefs, see the prominence of fiscal issues.
Second, Rove explained that candidates “need to create a narrative to explain ‘Why not Obama?’ and why them. They are going to have a problem if they don’t realize the second is harder and requires more time.” After all, as he pointed out, any conservative can critique Obama.
Third, Rove observed that all candidates have “strengths and challenges.” The key to a successful race is to “broaden the strengths” and minimize and ameliorate the weaknesses. For Romney, Rove said flat-out that health-care is his biggest challenge. “I like Romney very much,” Rove said, but the recent flap with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) “is illustrative of the problem” Romney will face in explaining his Massachusetts health-care plan.
The fourth item, Rove said, “is the hardest to prepare for.” He recalled that in every campaign there is “some unanticipated moment” when the candidate is challenged and has to show what he is made of. For Bush, that moment came when he lost the New Hampshire primary in 2000. Voters wondered, “Is he going to be tough enough?” In South Carolina, Bush proved his mettle.
I also asked Rove about the gambit by some candidates, Barbour most recently, to play the neo-isolationist card. Rove said, “There is a a difference between saying there is waste in the Pentagon — there is — and saying we need to reduce spending on defense.” There is a market in the GOP for the former (few recall that Bush ran on “reforming the military”), but the second issue is “problematic. There is a very strong nationalistic element in the Republican Party.” He also observed that Israel is vitally important to many conservatives and “there are a lot of 9/11 Republicans” who joined the party out of concern over national security.
Rove reinforced my sense that while everyone talks about “a late start,” there is plenty going on in the Republican 2012 race, and what candidates do — or don’t do now — may determine the outcome.
This article originally appeared on WashingtonPost.com on Tuesday, March 22, 2011.