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Strategist focuses on president's devotees

NEW YORK -- Karl Rove tells a story that in a different political environment might seem quaint: about a wealthy donor in Arizona who, having given the maximum to President Bush, is now consumed with forwarding campaign literature to her friends over the Internet.

''She literally reports to me, 'I talked to so-and-so, and their kids in San Francisco are a lost cause, but they think they can get their kids in Oregon,' " Rove said recently. ''So I said: 'Don't worry about the kids in San Francisco. Go get the ones in Oregon.' "

''That," Rove added, ''is the level of what we are trying to create."

Rove's willingness to openly dismiss voters in California for a slight advantage in the battleground state of Oregon is a revealing glimpse into his political calculations. And the mere fact that Rove, one of the most powerful strategists in modern history, is fielding reports on particular voters speaks volumes about the extent to which his personal reputation is riding on the unusually risky strategy he has devised for Bush's reelection effort.

Despite an expected showcasing of the ''softer side" of the Republican Party at the convention in New York this week -- an attempt to win undecided and moderate voters to the GOP cause -- the heart of the strategy is to drive up the turnout of hard-core believers.

Bush spends a striking amount of time in Republican-leaning areas of swing states, seeking to ratchet up enthusiasm. His campaign has run advertising on cable networks tailored to such Republican-friendly viewers as golfers and fishermen. To Rove, an obsessive number cruncher, it all boils down to a simple empirical fact: There are more potential Republicans out there in battleground states than undecided moderates. Get the Republicans to show up on Election Day and the race is won.

But the approach breaks from conventional wisdom, and it is, by all accounts, a gamble -- one that could cement Rove's reputation as a political legend and shift the paradigm of future elections if it succeeds, as it apparently did in the congressional midterm elections in 2002, or offer an embarrassing indictment of Rove's master plan if it fails.

''Bush will be judged on many things, win or lose, but Karl's legacy is electoral," said Bill Miller, a Texas Republican strategist who has worked with and against Rove. ''Karl is going to be judged by whether he put that guy back in the White House another four years. It's that simple. It's a pass-fail grade."

Rove, 53, has been lionized and vilified, thanks to his history of hardball tactics and his relentless pursuit of victory on behalf of his most important client. Alternately nicknamed ''boy genius," as Bush once called him, or ''Bush's brain," as a critical new documentary and biography of him are titled, Rove is often described as the ruthless mastermind behind the conversion of Texas into a Republican state, the transformation of Bush into a viable politician, and the design of a long-term strategy to bring lasting Republican dominance at the national level.   Continued...

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