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Still, Rove knows an opportunity when he sees one. In private, Republicans concede that Bush's focus on Iraq has vastly improved their chances in November and bless Rove for his efforts. More than a few G.O.P. candidates, taking their cue from Bush's political guru, are beating the war drums in their speeches and insinuating that their Democratic opponents are soft on defense. But others fear this kind of talk has gone too far and could backfire. "There are some high-level people in the White House, Karl Rove being the main driver, who are using this for politics," says a G.O.P. Senator, whose message to his colleagues is: "Don't be baited. Don't let Rove hook you."
Though Rove insists he doesn't play a foreign policy role, he fought an internal battle last spring with Bush's economic and foreign policy advisers over steel tariffs. Rove was for imposing the duties--favored by steel companies and unions in Mid-western swing states--and he won. It was Rove who in July warned Republican lawmakers who wanted to lift the trade embargo on Cuba that the White House would never go along. Bush's position was based on policy, not politics, Rove promised, but the Congressmen didn't buy it. The Cuban-American lobby is key to Bush's hope of winning Florida in 2004, not to mention his brother's tough re-election bid in November to be the state's Governor. Says anti-embargo Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona: "Everyone recognizes there is a political element to this."
And to almost everything else Rove is involved in. Rove has already drawn up plans for the 2004 re-election campaign, White House sources tell TIME. Ken Mehlman, his deputy, will leave the White House to be the official campaign manager. But Rove will run things from inside, following the example of James Baker, who managed Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election effort as White House chief of staff. Like Baker, says a senior White House official, Rove wants to be "as much about policy as politics."