US Politics

Karl Rove's spat on Fox News puts Republican's conflicting roles in focus

Republican fund-raiser in on-air confrontation after fellow commentators call Ohio for Obama

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2012, 3:27am

It was 11.13pm on Tuesday, the moment that Fox News called Ohio for US President Barack Obama. Karl Rove stood just off camera, his phone glued to his ear. On the other end was a senior official of Mitt Romney's campaign, insisting that the network had got it wrong.

What followed - an extraordinary on-air confrontation between Rove, a Fox commentator, and the network's team of voting analysts - drew renewed focus on the Republican operative's complicated and conflicting roles in the presidential campaign.

Was he acting as the man who oversaw the most expensive advertising assault on a sitting president in history, unable to face his own wounded pride? The fund-raiser who had persuaded wealthy conservatives to give hundreds of millions of dollars and now had a lot of explaining to do? Or the former political strategist for George W. Bush, who saw first hand how a botched network call could alter the course of a presidential contest?

Rove insists it was the ghosts of 2000 that prompted him to act.

"I had a concern about premature calls, and in this instance, the concern was shared by my Fox colleague Joe Trippi," Rove said on Wednesday, referring to the Democratic strategist and Fox contributor who ran Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2004. Indeed, in his 2010 memoir Courage and Consequence, Rove recounts his dismay as NBC, CNN, CBS and an exit-polling firm all called Florida for Al Gore before the polls in the state's Panhandle had closed.

"The networks calling Florida for Gore turned the media from observers to participants in the presidential race," he wrote.

However, Rove plays a bigger role than campaign historian. With a vast treasury at his disposal, he can direct huge sums of money to candidates, while helping shape political perceptions through his roles commenting for Fox News and writing a column for The Wall Street Journal. And when he talks, people listen.

Rove's deep connections to Republican politics are part of the reason that Fox News put him on air on Tuesday night to rebut its own team of analysts.

"The first thing that came to my mind, the first thing burned in everyone's mind, is Florida 2000," said Michael Clemente, Fox News executive vice-president. "And the minute you hear, 'Hold the phone,' you sort of get that oh-my-goodness feeling."

So Clemente decided with his producers to allow Rove to say on television what he was finding and hearing from the Romney campaign: that the numbers coming out of Ohio were not necessarily adding up to an Obama victory. Fox News then let its decision team respond. At 11.33pm, Megyn Kelly, an anchor known for her no-nonsense style, did the questioning. By then, Fox had declared Obama not just the winner of Ohio but of the presidency. And when Rove next went on camera, his demeanour was more deflated.