WASHINGTON – Karl Rove was not "frog-marched" out of the White House in handcuffs as his detractors had hoped, but the past year was certainly a low point for President Bush's close friend and chief political strategist.
A criminal investigation put Rove under scrutiny for months, then he was forced to surrender a key policy role in a move that raised questions about his authority in the White House.
While Rove fought the allegations and kept a low public profile, he never lost his unparalleled influence on the president, say those close to him.
"The history of a lot of folks in these jobs is that they are hired guns," Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said. "With Karl, you have someone who has been central to what the president has been doing for decades."
Mehlman and others in the White House say Rove gave up his responsibilities as chief policy coordinator in April, but remains heavily involved in all aspects of domestic and international policy.
The coordinator role had turned Rove into an internal White House diplomat, trying to coordinate different views into a coherent position while maintaining neutrality. Some felt it stretched the political strategist too thin.
The slimmed-down portfolio leaves Rove freer to focus on politics, look at the big picture and provide a gut-check in a White House that has struggled with missteps that may leave Republicans vulnerable in the midterm congressional elections.
Rove fell under a legal cloud after a grand jury, starting late in 2003, began investigating the leak of a CIA officer's identity to reporters. He learned in June that he would not be indicted.
With that threat behind him, Rove is back to his old playful self — sporting Elvis sideburns on a recent trip to Memphis with the president and traveling around the country for lucrative storytelling to GOP donors.
The Republican base never flinched at suggestions that Rove tried to smear administration critic Joe Wilson by revealing his wife's role as a CIA operative.
Publicity surrounding the case seems even to have increased Rove's stature among Republicans and contributed to an almost mystical view of the longtime Bush strategist among the party faithful because he came out on top.
At a recent presidential fundraiser near Bush's Texas ranch, a line that formed for photos with Rove was nearly as long as the line waiting to see the president.
Rove is an impressive fundraiser himself, bringing in $10.4 million in 75 events this cycle, more than any other Republican official besides the president, first lady and vice president.
"He came out clean," said Robert Pruger, one of the donors who recently paid $1,000 to hear Rove speak in Toledo. "When your opponent hits you and it doesn't stick, you end up stronger for it."
The fundraiser aided the campaign of Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell. Financial consultant Cleves Delp was told that if he helped stage the fundraiser, he could get any leading conservative he liked to attend.
Rove wasn't the first choice, but Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas couldn't raise money for the GOP, Delp learned.
Instead he got Rove, who mingled at Delp's home before the main event. Donors paid at least $10,000 each for the privilege of meeting Rove privately.
Delp was thrilled with the stories Rove told about what happened behind the scenes following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He said if more voters heard Rove's inside tales of the war on terror, Republicans might be in better shape.
"That's the problem," Delp said. "Maybe we're not feeling the sense of what happened that day. We need to be reminded of that more often."
As if on cue, Rove took to the podium and invoked the memory of Sept. 11, when his secretary called to tell him the news. "I walked five feet over and told the president of the United States that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center," Rove said. "They didn't know whether it was a big plane or a little plane, a commercial plane or a private plane."
If Rove experienced any pain from having his own reputation questioned, it hasn't stopped him from tearing down political opponents with attacks on their credibility.
Once again he's using the tactic that helped Bush win re-election in 2004 — suggesting that Democrats cannot adequately protect the country from terrorists.
"The problem for these Democrats is that their policies would have consequences and their policies would make us more, not less, vulnerable," Rove said from a podium beneath the beamed, vaulted ceilings and brass chandeliers of the Inverness Country Club in Toledo. "And in war, weakness emboldens your enemies and it's an invitation for disaster."
He even targets those who are decorated military veterans like Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha.
Rove recently said those Democrats "may be with you at the first shots, but they are not going to be there for the last tough battles."
He criticizes the media too. A favorite target is The New York Times and its role in revealing the administration's secret tracking of terrorist financing. He recently said journalists often criticize political professionals because they want to draw attention away from the "corrosive role their coverage has played focusing attention on process and not substance."
That might offer a clue to why Rove declined to be interviewed for this article and quickly left the Toledo fundraiser — a rare public forum that attracted a media pack that chased him out to his car.
Asked about his recent weight loss, Rove, without mentioning the liquid-based diet supervised by Dr. Arthur Frank at George Washington University, smiled and told reporters he'd lost 22 pounds through "clean living."
The mischievous Rove stuck his head out of the car before it sped off to add gleefully: "And avoiding you guys."