WASHINGTON — Karl Rove's imminent departure as President Bush's closest White House adviser is the latest and most dramatic signal that Bush himself is heading toward the exit as Americans prepare to choose his replacement next year.
Rove's departure — effective at the end of the month — leaves Bush facing the loss of his most trusted political adviser as he heads into the final year and a half of his presidency. The two men have been friends for three decades and have been politically inseparable for the past 14 years.
But Rove, in a telephone interview with McClatchy Newspapers, said he expects to continue to have an advisory role with Bush, who told him, "I know your phone number and you'd better know mine."
Rove also expects congressional Democrats to continue efforts to get him to testify in an inquiry into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys.
"They're going to keep coming after me," Rove told McClatchy. "They've got a bunch of guys auditioning for the role of Captain Ahab, and I'm Moby Dick."
Rove, widely credited with Bush's 2000 presidential victory and subsequent re-election, said he is leaving to spend more time with his family.
But key Democrats questioned the timing of the decision while Congress is demanding Rove's testimony in its U.S. attorneys investigation.
"Now that he is leaving the White House while under subpoena, I continue to ask what Mr. Rove and others at the White House are so desperate to hide," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Bush and Rove appeared before reporters on the South Lawn of the White House Monday to discuss the decision, then embraced afterward. Rove earlier announced his intentions in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
"It's been an exhilarating and eventful time," an emotional Rove told Bush. "Through it all, you've been the same man."
"Karl is moving on down the road," Bush said, calling Rove a "dear friend." The president, who leaves office in January 2009, told his longtime aide, "I'll be on the road behind you here in a little bit."
Rove's decision marks the latest in a series of high-profile departures from an administration beset by internal problems and mounting disapproval from the public. He is the last of a cadre of Texas advisers who followed Bush to Washington to become part of the White House inner circle.
Karen Hughes, another trusted Texas confidante from Bush's years as governor of Texas, has since moved to a top post in the State Department and seemingly has little day-to-day influence on the White House. Alberto Gonzales, Bush's former counsel from Austin, is mired in controversy as attorney general.
Some of Rove's duties are likely to be absorbed by White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and recently named presidential counselor Ed Gillespie, a former National Republican Committee chairman. But no one is expected to fill Rove's shoes completely or replicate the bond that existed between Bush and his longtime aide.
"It's a big loss for Bush from the standpoint that Rove combined in one person a variety of attributes that Bush will now get from a variety of people," said Bruce Buchanan of Austin, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas. "I don't know of anyone other than his dad (former President George H.W. Bush) with whom the president will have a similar bond of trust."
Rove forged an early reputation as a political architect with a Midas touch. He was credited with Bush's 2000 presidential triumph as well as with Bush's hard-fought re-election victory over Democrat John Kerry.
But the luster began to evaporate in Bush's second term amid election setbacks, congressional investigations and weariness over the Iraq war. Rove's goal of building a national Republican majority disintegrated with the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress.
Rove also alienated many leading conservatives.
Conservative leader Richard Viguerie called Rove's departure "good news for conservatives," blaming the president's political adviser for initiatives that expanded the size and reach of the federal government, including the No Child Left Behind Act requiring school testing, the McCain-Feingold law limiting campaign contributions and the expansion of Medicare to include a prescription drug benefit.
A leader of Christian conservatives, Paul Weyrich, said evangelicals felt Rove was "unresponsive."
"Therefore, there's a feeling we haven't lost a lot in his departure," said Weyrich.
More recently, Rove and other White House officials for the past seven months have been embroiled in the controversy over the firings of U.S. attorneys. Senate Democrats are investigating whether the firings were improperly motivated by partisan politics.
The White House has denied any wrongdoing.
Separately, the independent Office of Special Counsel is investigating whether political briefings of government agencies by Rove and his staff violated or led to violations of the Hatch Act.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said "questions by this investigation remain," adding that his panel will continue to demand the cooperation of Rove and other officials in the inquiry, "regardless of whether they are employed by the White House."
But Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University, said Rove's departure "takes a little steam out of the investigations." Zelizer also speculated that Republicans may get some benefit with the polarizing aide out of the White House and therefore "politically diminished."
Rove told McClatchy he plans to write a book, but he declined to elaborate on the topic, adding that he ultimately would like to teach. He said he plans to split his time between Washington, Texas and a residence his family has on the Florida Panhandle.
As arguably the best-known political strategist in America, Rove could easily command lucrative speaking fees on the lecture circuit. Although the White House dismissed the possibility that Rove will work for any candidate next year, Mark McKinnon, a former Bush media strategist, said Rove likely will become "guru-in-chief" for Republicans in 2008.
"I think Karl has done all that he can do for this White House, and he can now step out and have an impact on the 2008 election," said McKinnon, vice chairman of Public Strategies, an Austin-based consulting firm. "All the campaigns will be seeking his counsel."