WASHINGTON—Tuesday's news that presidential adviser Karl Rove won't face prosecution lifted a cloud over the White House and gave President Bush another reason to hope that his worst days are behind him.
As Bush basked in cheers from U.S. troops during a secret visit to Baghdad, his closest adviser was back at work in the White House free from worry about a possible indictment in the CIA leak case. All in all, it was another good day for the president, who finally has a few reasons to celebrate after a long string of setbacks that battered his popularity.
The developments added to the optimism that swept through the White House after last week's slaying of terrorist chief Abu Musab al Zarqawi in Iraq and the completion of a new Iraqi government.
In addition, a Republican won the June 6 special election to fill the San Diego congressional seat left vacant by former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's bribery conviction, reviving hope among Republicans that congressional elections in November may not doom them. Bush's recent appointments of Josh Bolten as White House chief of staff and Henry Paulson as treasury secretary also won widespread praise.
"All of a sudden the clouds broke and the sun started to shine," said Ed Gillespie, a former Republican Party chairman. "After six months of thunderstorms and rain it feels pretty good."
How long the good days will last for the president is another question.
"He's had a spate of good news," said Paul Light, a public policy professor at New York University. "But there has to be the recognition that time is running out. That's the nature of the political clock."
Democrats scoffed at suggestions that Bush was rebounding.
"These few developments—and for instance, the Zarqawi one is one I welcome—don't remove the cloud of incompetence that is over the administration's head," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "I don't think the administration can really recover until they change their entire way of operating, bring in people who are not ideologues or cronies but rather care about competently running the government; begin to reach out in a bipartisan way."
The resolution of Rove's legal troubles means that the president's top political operative is now free to focus on retaining Republican control of Congress in November's elections. Rove, the architect of Bush's rise from baseball executive to governor of Texas to president, has broad influence over the Republican Party and serves as its chief strategist.
Rumors of his possible indictment swirled for months after he testified five times before a federal grand jury that's investigating the leak of a CIA officer's name to the news media. On Tuesday, Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, said special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald had "formally advised" him that the prosecutor "does not anticipate seeking charges" against the White House aide.
Friends and associates said the announcement removed a personal burden that Rove had done a good job of concealing. "You know what you did or didn't do, but until the prosecutor agrees, it's on your mind," former White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. "You'd be crazy if you didn't think about it."
Republicans said Fitzgerald's decision showed the viciousness of Democrats' attacks on Rove. Democrats questioned the prosecutor's decision to forgo prosecution.
Yet Rove's clearance deprived Democrats of a chance to use him as the poster boy for their efforts to convince voters that Republicans have fostered a "culture of corruption" in Washington, although some Democrats seemed reluctant to accept the loss.
"If the president valued America more than he valued his connection with Karl Rove, Karl Rove would have been fired a long time ago," Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said.
Duffy, who recently left the White House, said the recent developments had given Republicans "a much-needed morale boost at precisely the right time." Still, he conceded that Bush has a long way to go to restore his standing with voters.
A new Gallup poll, conducted last weekend, offered encouraging news for Bush but also highlighted the hurdles he faces in trying to ease doubts about his leadership. Although his approval rating climbed to its highest level since February, it was still only 38 percent.
And while 53 percent of Americans hailed al-Zarqawi's death as a major achievement, only 20 percent thought it would mean fewer insurgent attacks. Most Americans—51 percent in the poll—remain convinced that the Iraq invasion was a mistake.
The poll was taken June 9-11 of 1,002 people and had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Gillespie, who has close ties to Rove and the White House, said Bush couldn't expect to regain his popularity overnight.
"These things turn slowly," he said, "but it does seem to a lot of us that the aircraft carrier is slowly turning."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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