AUSTIN, Tex., Jan. 18 Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, sought today to turn the war into partisan advantage, telling Republicans gathered here that the administration's handling of terrorism could be an important theme for the party to trumpet in the November midterm elections.
"Americans trust the Republicans to do a better job of keeping our communities and our families safe," Mr. Rove said in a luncheon speech at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee. "We can also go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America's military might and thereby protecting America."
Mr. Rove's comments came shortly after the party elected Marc Racicot, the former governor of Montana, as chairman. Mr. Racicot, who was selected in December by Mr. Bush to replace former Gov. James S. Gilmore III of Virginia, today dismissed criticism of an arrangement in which he will be paid by a law firm that has done lobbying for Enron.
Mr. Rove's remarks were striking given that Mr. Bush has repeatedly said the war and the fight against terrorism were not partisan endeavors and had no place in the political discourse. At a town hall meeting on Jan. 14 in Ontario, Calif., Mr. Bush said, "It's time to take the spirit of unity that has been prevalent when it comes to fighting the war and bring it to Washington, D.C."
In fact, Mr. Rove said in a recent interview that the president had instructed his aides: "Politics has no role in this. Don't talk to me about politics for a while."
Mr. Rove is the first administration official to speak publicly about how Republicans could capitalize on the war, and Democrats seized the comments, accusing him of using the war for partisan gain.
"If the White House is politicizing the war, that's nothing short of despicable," Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic Party chairman, said. "For Karl Rove to politicize the issue is an affront to the integrity of the entire United States military."
In an interview, Mr. Racicot said he did not interpret Mr. Rove as saying that the war has elevated Mr. Bush's political standing or could help the party.
"I didn't perceive him saying the war helps the president," he said. "I think that an unfortunate circumstance has revealed an extraordinary person who leads in a very capable way with a clarity of vision that we have rarely seen in our lifetimes."
Mr. Rove left no doubt in his speech that he saw the war and handling of terrorism as a winning issue for Republicans. He said, "We should be proud of the record of our party" in ensuring the safety of Americans.
Mr. Rove's speech overshadowed the takeover of Mr. Racicot, 53, a soft-spoken politician. The former governor, who said last week that he would cease lobbying for his firm, Bracewell & Patterson, asserted today that he did not see anything inappropriate in drawing a salary by continuing to do other work for the firm. But he said he and the firm as well as the White House could re-evaluate the arrangement in 11 months, the time he has remaining to complete the term of Mr. Gilmore.
In the interview shortly after his election by a unanimous voice vote, Mr. Racicot lamented that his debut had been marred a bit by questions about his ethics. He said he was unprepared for what Washington demanded of its politicians.
"I don't know if I was naïve," he said, "but where I come from, you presume the best in people. I think I was underexposed to those dynamics a little bit."
Mr. Racicot, who is close to the president, said neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Rove raised questions about the payment arrangement. "He never said anything about it," Mr. Racicot said. "Neither did Karl or anybody."
In his debut speech, Mr. Racicot said nothing about his relationship with the law firm. Instead, he heaped praise on Mr. Bush and fired some partisan shots by portraying Democrats as obstructionists.
Mr. Racicot called on his Democratic counterpart, Mr. McAuliffe, "to help stop the politics of obstruction."
And he had a message for Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the majority leader who has become a popular target of Republicans: "Have no fear, Senator Daschle. Let's get on with business."
He accused Mr. Daschle and Democrats of stalling on Mr. Bush's economic stimulus plan.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company