As George W. Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove is supposed to keep the President in a healthy political glow. But on one key issue recently, Rove stood by while Bush turned as gray as a hazy day in Houston. Bush abandoned a campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, rejected the Kyoto global-warming treaty, suspended new arsenic standards for drinking water--and began to look suspiciously like the eco-villain Al Gore warned us about. Moderate Republicans were getting jittery. So last week Rove and other aides pulled out the green paints and brushes and set to work on Bush's environmental makeover--a series of announcements meant to add some much needed chlorophyll to the President's image. The White House said it would uphold strict regulations on lead contamination, left in place a Clinton rule expanding wetlands protection and backed a treaty banning a dozen harmful chemicals found mostly in poorer countries (but not in the U.S., which made signing it easier for Bush). Rove huddled with Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman before she faced the press, and he told reporters how misunderstood the President is on this issue.
Solid p.r. work. But if Rove's theme week is followed by any more bad environmental news from the White House, the spinning won't have a prayer of changing public perceptions. Which is why the private meeting that took place in Rove's office last Tuesday tells you more about his value to Bush than anything about the publicity blitz. Rove--the Man to See for G.O.P. favor seekers--was joined at the meeting by Mary Matalin, a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, and Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant who has been working with oil companies to help sell Bush's plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Castellanos feared that bad press about the environment was weakening resolve inside the Administration, and he was right. Armed with polls and videotapes, he tried to make the case that the policy could be a political winner, but he failed. Rove told him Bush wasn't exactly dropping the position, but he wasn't going to push for it either. The President was already engaged in too many big fights with Congress--over tax cuts, spending, education reform--that he might not win. He didn't need another one. "For Karl, it was a matter of priorities," says a source familiar with the meeting. "Why fight all the battles at the same time?"
Setting priorities and delivering bad news to friends is just a sliver of what Rove does as Bush's top political gun. It was Rove who shaped the agenda, message and strategy that got Bush--the least experienced presidential nominee of modern times--into the White House. Now it is Rove's job to keep him there through 2008. "My job," Rove told TIME last week, "is to pay attention to the things that affect his political future." That's why, in the first week of Bush's presidency, Rove was bringing political advisers from New Hampshire to the White House to plot strategy for the 2004 presidential race.