When Karl Rove hatched the plan, it looked like the sort of deft political move that led George W. Bush to dub him "Boy Genius." Last year the President's political strategist recruited Los Angeles' popular outgoing mayor, Richard Riordan, to run for Governor against the vulnerable Demo-cratic incumbent, Gray Davis--and Rove seemed to be taking the first step toward remaking the moribund California G.O.P. in Bush's image. But Riordan's spectacular defeat in last week's Republican primary suggests that what passes for genius in Washington can look too clever by half anywhere else.
That may explain why Bush's other nickname for Rove is "Turd Blossom." The California move was part of an aggressive and unconventional Rove strategy to boost favored candidates in dozens of G.O.P. primaries around the country. Republican activists are grumbling about White House meddling in a party that claims to champion local decision making. This week supporters of Georgia state representative Bob Irvin--a former minority leader endorsed by 71 current and former state legislators--plan to send Rove and White House political director Ken Mehlman a letter protesting Bush's support of Congressman Saxby Cham-bliss over Irvin in the Aug. 20 primary. (Bush expects to raise $1.7 million for Chambliss at a March 27 fund raiser.) "It would be a mistake for you to try to control the Senate primary here, just as it turned out to be a mistake in the California pri-mary for Governor," they wrote.
It's unfair to blame the California debacle solely on Rove. Riordan, the millionaire ex-mayor whose moderate leanings led some party stalwarts to brand him a RINO (Republican in Name Only), ran a dismal race, blowing a 40-point lead. His untested opponent, millionaire businessman Bill Simon Jr., got an endorsement from 9/11 hero Rudy Giuliani and proved both surefooted and in tune with the conservative voters who dominate the primary. Then Davis did some meddling of his own, spending $10 million on attack ads against Riordan. But the White House failed to anticipate those factors, which explains why Presidents, like parents, usually avoid taking sides in family fights.
Bush's hand in the Riordan candidacy drew a postgame rebuke from Vice President Dick Cheney's old boss Gerald Ford, who told the New York Times that when he was President he had a "firm policy" not to play favorites in a primary. Ronald Reagan was so leery of showing preferences that he sometimes resisted posing for pictures with anyone who was up against another Republican. And George H.W. Bush broke the rule so rarely that his former political director Ron Kaufman could recall only two instances, both of which occurred when the elder Bush was Vice President. Senior Democrats are avoiding primary endorsements in this election cycle for a practical reason: they tried it in three House races two years ago and lost them all.