WASHINGTON – Embattled White House adviser Karl Rove vowed Friday to make the war on terrorism a central campaign issue in November.
He also said Democratic senators looked "mean-spirited and small-minded" in questioning Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito.
"Republicans have a post-9/11 view of the world. And Democrats have a pre-9/11 view of the world," Rove told Republican activists. "That doesn't make them unpatriotic, not at all. But it does make them wrong — deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."
Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean denounced Rove's remarks and renewed his call for the deputy White House chief of staff to be fired for his role in leaking a CIA official's name. "That is both unpatriotic and wrong," Dean said.
Rove, making a rare public address while under investigation in the CIA leak case, joined Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman in warning GOP leaders against falling prey to the corrupting nature of power.
"The GOP's progress during the last four decades is a stunning political achievement. But it is also a cautionary tale of what happens to a dominant party — in this case, the Democrat Party — when its thinking becomes ossified; when its energy begins to drain; when an entitlement mentality takes over; and when political power becomes an end in itself rather than a mean to achieve the common goal," Rove told Republican National Committee members ending a two-day meeting.
"We need to learn from our successes," he said, "and from the failures of others."
The admonition reflects growing concerns among senior Republicans that ethics scandals in the Republican-led Congress could hurt the party in November, even among staunch GOP voters who may begin to blame corruption for Congress' runaway spending habits.
Mehlman couldn't have been more blunt: "One of the oldest lessons of history is that power corrupts," he said, telling RNC members that any Republicans guilty of illegal behavior should be punished.
The investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff threatens to ensnare at least a half dozen members of Congress of both parties and Bush administration officials. His ties to GOP congressional leaders and the White House pose a particular problem for Republicans. Abramoff, who has admitted to conspiring to defraud his Indian tribe clients, has pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges and is cooperating with prosecutors.
In an unrelated scandal, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, is expected to stand trial in the CIA leak case this summer, just ahead of the midterm elections.
The special prosecutor's inquiry is still under way, leaving the fate of other senior White House officials, notably Rove, in doubt.
Bush's political guru opened his remarks with a joking reference to the unwanted attention the case has brought him. "Anybody want to get their picture in the paper? Come on up here," he said.
In 2002, Rove caused a stir among Democrats when he told RNC members to make the war on terrorism an issue in the midterm elections. "We can 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," he said at the time.
Rove made the same case Friday, though his words were a bit more measured. Reading from a prepared text, he began with a call for election-year civility — "Our opponents are our fellow citizens, not our enemies" — and quickly turned to portraying Democrats as weak on defense.
"The United States faces a ruthless enemy — and we need a commander in chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity that American finds itself in," Rove said. "President Bush and the Republican Party do. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Democrats."
He said some Democrats want to abandon Iraq too soon, which would cause enemies to "laugh at our failed resolve." Rove added: "To retreat before victory would be a reckless act — and this president and our party will not allow it. This is worthy of a public debate."
Rove also criticized Democrats for opposing extension of the USA Patriot Act and warrantless eavesdropping, before turning to Alito, newly minted Chief Justice John Roberts and their Democratic opponents on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"Every effort to smear the name of these good men blew up in the face of those making the malicious charges. Some committee members came across as mean-spirited and small-minded — and it left a searing impression," Rove said. He specifically accused Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., of creating "an ugly display" during Alito's hearing.
Before the RNC members returned to their home states, they approved an immigration resolution supported by the White House. A competing measure backed by hard-line conservatives opposed to Bush's guest worker program was withdrawn under pressure from White House allies.