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Our Political Ringmaster, Large and In Charge

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Karl Rove told me that he was going to be too busy to talk much. It was true. He had a hit on Fox to prepare, and a piece to write for The Wall Street Journal ("Due in 35 minutes," he said.) The Super Pac he had founded was airing a new ad, featuring shattered glass and a list of the president's "failed" promises. Rove had two speeches to give, traveling to do, Pac donors to woo and calls with friends throughout the Republican realm, including folks at party committees and in Romney headquarters.

Once known as "Turd Blossom," later as "the Architect," Rove, at 61, is more powerful than ever: a multi-dimensional, 21st century version of a 19th century Party Boss. Specifically, he is the reincarnation of Mark Hanna for our own corrupted, McKinley-style era, in which Gargantuan Money again is paralyzing our politics.

"Karl has a lot of sway," says former RNC Chairman Michael Steele. "Not swagger, but sway. He's Svengali."

Long ago, a party boss operated in the shadows. But now, in the age of Twitter, cable television and Super Pacs, a party boss operates in plain sight - the plainer the better. Federal election laws are laughably weak, but they are supposed to bar a candidate's campaign from "coordinating" with "independent" Pacs, among them Rove's own American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS.

Rove's prominence is the easiest and most deliberately obvious way around the law. Deeply respected (as well as feared and despised) within the party for his 40-year track record - not to mention his access to Texas and Texas-size donors -- he acts publicly as a Bat Signal in the media sky and privately as a clearinghouse of tactics, information, advice and fundraising intel.
This year, Svengali wanted Mitt Romney to be the Republican nominee. The former governor of Massachusetts was well liked by the Bush Family, Rove's ultimate patrons and longtime employers.

Ostensibly but not actually neutral, Rove used his perch on Fox News (run by his old Bush Family friend Roger Ailes) to trash Mitt's GOP primary foes (Newt Gingrich was a "whiner) and offer on-air counsel to Romney. "My responsibility as an analyst was to call them as I see them," Rove told me coolly, "and that naturally invites disagreement."

Now, in the general election, Rove can exert even more influence. Top Romney aide Beth Myers, who is in charge of vetting veep contenders, got her training under Rove in the 1980s. Campaign manager Matt Rhoades served as Rove's key "opposition research" person in the 2004 election, helping frame John Kerry as a flip-flopping, French fry loving, fop.

To ensure that things go smoothly at Romney headquarters, the campaign recruited as a senior advisor Ed Gillespie, a likable and effective GOP operative and long time Rove friend who helped found Crossroads.

Rove's career is a testament to Nietzsche's dictum that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. He learned as a teenager that he was adopted. His stepfather was gay. His mother committed suicide when he was 20. He was banished from President George H.W. Bush's 1992 campaign for leaking an attack on a rival aide. He was blamed for vicious personal attacks in 2000 on John McCain, but never directly tied to them. In 2006, after a lengthy investigation, he was cleared in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case. In 2009, a congressional committee invesigated -- and blamed -- him for politicizing the firing of U.S. attorneys, but he escaped any legal consequences.

Now, in a way, a lifetime of work is coming together. He's always pushed envelopes. Fundraising is one. With Sen. Mitch McConnell, a close ally, he successfully spearheaded a decades-long attack on campaign laws; now "independent" Pacs, such as Rove's, can raise unlimited sums from corporate treasuries and, for long periods, keep wealthy donors' names under wraps. He has taken cultural attack tactics he learned as a boy in the Nixon days and industrialized them. His current enemy of convenience: public employees.

Shrewdly, Rove has eschewed attempting to make money as a political consultant. (Others handle his original expertise, direct mail.) Instead he can recommend other "vendors" for them to use - yet another way for him to consolidate his power. He makes his money these days from speeches and media.

Though Rove co-founded Crossroads, he has no title and isn't on the board. Crossroads' twin entities - American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS - hope to raise at least $300 million, according to CEO Steven Law - which is more than the Obama and Romney campaigns have managed to collect so far.

Expect the Rovean messaging to be harsh. In 2005, when a still largely united country was debating what to do next in Bush's "Global War on Terror," Rove came forth to define the battle for his boss. "Conservatives saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and prepared for war," Rove declared. "Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for the attackers."

It was Rove at his best, or worst. But it was a typical moment of our time and we're bound to see more of it from a political discourse that Rove now dominates.