GOP chair could be Rove's successor

Md. native viewed as possible replacement if top Bush adviser resigns in probe of CIA leak


WASHINGTON -- Ken Mehlman, the campaign whiz who helped steer President Bush to re-election, has spent years toiling in political maestro Karl Rove's formidable shadow.

Now, with White House officials bracing for Rove's possible indictment in the CIA leak investigation, Mehlman, the national Republican Party chairman, could emerge as his successor.

Mehlman, 39, a Pikesville native, is at the center of speculation about what the president might do if Rove, his influential adviser and confidant, resigns as a result of criminal charges.

Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald is said to be wrapping up his nearly two-year investigation into the disclosure of a covert CIA operative's identity and is said to be eyeing Rove - as well as I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide - as a possible target.

Mehlman, who served as White House political director during Bush's first term, is considered a potential successor to Rove, who recruited him into the Bush camp in 1999.

He has been the tactician behind Rove's grand strategies and possesses some of Rove's assets: a command of demographic statistics and district-by-district facts, strong ties to interest groups and a keen political ear. Mehlman is also known for his ability to craft the party message and rarely if ever straying from it.

Mehlman "fits the two key criteria for Bush - ideology and loyalty - and he's proven himself to the president on a variety of tasks," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist. "Surely, Mehlman has absorbed some of Rove's style ... so he's as close as [Bush] can get without keeping Rove."

But Rove's role is far too broad for one aide to assume.

"It will take several people to pick up all the strands that Rove will leave hanging" if he has to go, Buchanan said.

Again yesterday, Bush deflected a question about the CIA leak probe, which could lead to charges this week.

Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz said Mehlman "is solely focused on his duties as RNC chair." He sidestepped questions about any plans for Mehlman to return to the White House and said Mehlman was unavailable for an interview, citing his busy schedule.

The White House continued trying to distance Bush from any potential fallout from the leak.

"We've got to keep our energies focused on the things we can do something about," said press secretary Scott McClellan.

At the same time, strategists close to the White House said, top aides have been quietly discussing what to do in the event that Rove or other senior officials resign.

Some Republican operatives said privately that they believe a top White House hand such as Dan Bartlett, Bush's trusted counselor, could be elevated in the event of Rove's departure.

Bartlett, a Texan and Bush's longest-serving aide, plays a key role in White House communications strategy.

Bush "needs to be sensitive to the overpoliticization of everything going on, and while Ken [Mehlman] has a lot of strengths, his recent job as partisan chairman of the RNC makes him less useful in that role in the current climate," one strategist said. Bartlett has many of Mehlman's skills without the partisan tinge, the strategist added.

Others say that if Rove resigns, Mehlman would be well positioned to take up where Rove left off and to channel advice from his mentor to the White House.

"Ken is an exceptionally loyal public servant and has an incredible capacity on politics, on policy, on press and on management to accomplish a goal," said another top Republican close to the White House. "If something were to happen and Karl were to not be there, Ken would be one of the people that would be focused on, because he's such a valued asset."

Even if he doesn't return to the West Wing, Mehlman's role could be enhanced by a Rove resignation.

"Given the likelihood of wholesale change at the White House, Ken's advice will be more important than ever, whether he moves to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue or not," analyst Charlie Cook said in an e-mail.

Mehlman, a bachelor and workaholic, has been an integral player in an administration that, following Rove's lead, has closely melded politics and policy. As party chairman, Mehlman has worked to draw more voters into the Republican fold, in part by targeting traditional Democratic constituencies, such as blacks and Hispanics.

The son of an accountant and a teacher, Mehlman got his first political experience at age 14, when he volunteered for Ronald Reagan's campaign. After graduating from Pikesville High, he earned degrees from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and Harvard Law School.

Mehlman caught Rove's eye in 1998, while he was working on the re-election bid of a Republican congresswoman from Texas and soon joined the Bush team as Midwest field director.

As Bush's campaign manager in 2004, Mehlman took orders from Rove but made sure he would have control over his staff.

"If this job was going to be a job in which you were constantly second-guessed, I would not do it," he told The Sun last year, calling Rove "a mentor" and "good boss," but "not a micro-manager."

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