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Karen Hughes Takes Her Leave

The day before his inauguration, George W. Bush pointed to Karen Hughes at a staff meeting and told his other top advisers, "I don't want any important decision made without her in the room."

Bush's order was strictly enforced. No major presidential conclusion, event or public utterance has escaped the eyes and ears of Hughes -- perhaps the most influential woman ever to have served a president.

But now the White House counselor is leaving the room. She ends an 18-month run at the White House on Monday, creating a Texas-sized vacuum in the orbit of presidential advisers.

"She won't be here every single day to hear every single thing that's going on in the White House, which she does now," first lady Laura Bush said.

Hughes has been the president's friend and alter ego, the aide he most trusts to sense what moves voters, particularly working women and mothers. She finishes his sentences. She laughs loudest at his jokes. She enforces his demand for discipline, rooting out aides who leak to the media or claim credit that could go to the president.

Hughes still plans to advise Bush from her home in Austin, Texas. A contract with the Republican Party could make the work more lucrative than her government salary of $145,000 a year.

At the White House, however, her departure threatens to undo a delicate balance of power.

Karl Rove, whose portfolio includes all things political and policy, will face less competition for Bush's ear -- a point that worries some White House officials and GOP strategists.

Chief of Staff Andrew Card told Esquire Magazine he needs other aides to balance Rove, "but it won't be easy. Karl is a formidable adversary."

Such talk is dismissed by Hughes, Rove and Joe Allbaugh -- the "Iron Triangle" of advisers who helped Bush vault from the Texas statehouse to the White House.

Rove said his duties won't change with Hughes' departure, but life at the White House will. "I can no longer say, `Hey, I'll see her in 15 minutes and I can ask her that in a meeting."'

Allbaugh, who took over the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he's living proof that an adviser like Hughes can stay in touch when out of Bush's sight.

"The president knows my phone number. And I know his phone number. He's not only the president of the United States, he's my friend," Allbaugh said.

Hughes also plans to deliver speeches, and perhaps write a book about her experiences. Mrs. Bush wants help with her own book about children around the world.

"I won't be able to run downstairs and get in the Oval Office," Hughes said. "But I think I will be able to pick up a telephone and call the Oval Office and vice versa."

The White House may give Hughes a secure telephone in Texas for her talks with Bush.

In her spacious corner office at the White House, Hughes is asked what the president will miss most about her. She reaches across a pile of papers and grabs a wooden lid from her desk -- only to have it slip from her grasp and land noisily.

"This unvarnished lid is here to remind me that I'm supposed to give him my unvarnished opinion," Hughes said.

The scene might surprise Hughes' critics, some of whom are on Bush's team, who privately consider her loyal to a fault -- all but blind to her boss' shortcomings.

One of her biggest fans, Mrs. Bush, said Hughes has a habit of beginning sentences by saying, "I'm just concerned that ..." -- her way of gently correcting the president.

"I know my husband likes strong-willed women," Mrs. Bush said. "Who wouldn't if they had Barbara Bush as a mother?"

Mark McKinnon, ad consultant on Bush's campaign, said Hughes demanded after the stunning New Hampshire primary loss in 2000 that Bush start calling himself a reformer to counter rival John McCain.

"There were a bunch of us, me included, who thought McCain had already planted that flag and we couldn't get it back," McKinnon said.

Hughes and her colleagues say other aides will fill her role, including communications director Dan Bartlett and press secretary Ari Fleischer.

Bartlett, though only 31, has worked with Bush even longer than Hughes, who joined the president's first gubernatorial campaign in July 1994.

What she loses in geography, Hughes said she hopes to gain in perspective by living closer to America's pulse. Others say her influence will dwindle.

"Proximity is everything at the White House," said Leon Panetta, chief of staff in the Clinton White House.

Privately, some top Republicans and White House officials say Hughes may be missed most when it comes to protecting Bush's "compassionate conservatism" message, aimed at softening his conservative views with language and policies that appeal to swing voters.

Rove, while a force behind the same strategy, also reaches out to the party's conservative base.

"I think George Bush's heart and soul are much closer to Karl Rove, and Karen Hughes has managed to present an image that is more palatable, however phony it is," said Joe Lockhart, press secretary in the Clinton White House.

While the Bush team officially rejects such theories, even Rove said of Hughes: "Here's a person who is a working Mom so she uses a pair of eyes that see things differently than people like me."

Fleischer recently met with Hughes to discuss her transition out of the White House.

He asked her, "How do I make sure I have an answer when the president turns to us in the Oval Office and says, `What does Karen think about this?"'

Still working on that, Hughes replied.