Shaking the Money Tree, Sans Rove

Karl Rove dodged the indictment bullet on Friday. But with special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald continuing to investigate the administration's leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity, Rove remains at best a part-time player in the political wars.

For Republicans, the only silver lining here is that the midterm elections are still a year away.

It's hard to exaggerate Rove's clout within the party. He gets credit for galvanizing the coalition of business and social conservatives that carried President Bush into office on twin floods of new money and new voters. The president eventually rewarded him with the official title of White House deputy chief of staff — a post no other presidential political adviser has ever held. A more concise job title would be the one from a biography of Rove: Bush's Brain.

But not even a political genius can ignore a federal prosecutor. Rove is clearly distracted; witness, for just two recent cases, the ham-handed response to Hurricane Katrina, followed by the debacle of nominating Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. One visible sign of Rove's detachment: He's off the fundraising trail. After headlining at least 15 money events this year for candidates and party organizations (number courtesy of The Fix, a politics blog at washingtonpost.com), Rove cancelled out of events in Northern Virginia on Oct. 15 and in Greenwich, Conn., on Oct. 17. The Virginians especially could have used him; only two states elect governors this year, and the race in the Old Dominion is neck-and-neck.

There are hints, as well, that Rove and other GOP leaders are having behind-the-scenes trouble shaking the money tree.

This isn't to say the Republican Party is in a financial hole. Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, the Republican National Committee raised $75,520,633; the Democratic National Committee, $38,389,342, according to the Federal Election Commission.

But on Capitol Hill, where Democrats next November need a gain of six seats to win back the Senate, the National Republican Senatorial Committee actually trails its Democratic counterpart: $24,957,925 to $27,939,858. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is led by Sen. Charles Schumer, a New Yorker with Wall Street connections, and it's already collected more cash than it did in the entire two-year cycle for the 2004 races.

Republicans have a 29-seat margin in the House, and redistricting has shrunk the number of competitive districts. Still, a new analysis by the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute finds 40 "potentially competitive" races where both parties are active, up from 29 at this point two years ago. Within that group, Republican incumbents have a financial edge that averages only half the size of their advantage two years ago.

Of course, money also flows outside of the official party channels. And here, perversely, Republicans — or, rather, conservatives — may have a growth opportunity.

Their model would be the liberal group Move On. It was born in adversity, beginning in 1998 as a petition to "censure President Clinton and move on to pressing issues facing the nation." Two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, sent the original e-mail to their friends, who sent it to their friends, and so on.

By 2004, Move On was big enough to throw $27 million into the campaigns.

There are already conservative groups that claim to be counterparts to Move On. But on Friday afternoon, Move On e-mailed its members — not just trying to raise money off the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, but also giving its members guidance for writing letters to local papers about the Plame case and the war.

Move On had its email out within three hours after Libby's indictment was announced.

The Republican National Committee needed five hours to come up with a statement by party chairman Ken Mehlman.

Now, with President Bush now challenged on so many fronts, and with Democrats so loudly licking their chops, how hard should it be for Republicans to rally their forces online?

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