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Monday January 21 04:00 PM EST

Rove: Republicans Benefit from War Credentials

By Mark Halperin ABCNEWS.com

The president's senior strategist gave advice to party operatives in Austin.

Using unusually pointed language, President Bush's chief political adviser Karl Rove suggested Republicans should run on the message that they are the party who can be trusted to successfully fight the war against terrorism.

"We can also 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," Rove said.

"And we should be proud of the record of our party in doing just that."

Over a carb-heavy lunch at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting in Austin, Rove spelled out the GOP election message for November: "Win the war, protect the homeland, and revive the economy.

By keeping the public prepared for a long war, the president keeps up the necessary emotional and practical support the effort requires, but it has a political benefit too, as Bush's popularity and war-time mantle can be extended into this election year and maybe into 2004, when Bush's respected national security team could serve as actual or virtual surrogates in a possible Bush re-election effort.

Other issues Rove touted included tax cuts, trade, energy, tort reform, faith-based programs, the reauthorization of welfare reform, health care and education.

In a measure of the extent to which the administration is committed to building a legacy of bipartisan accomplishment AND fostering the president's bipartisan credentials, Rove told his deeply partisan audience how great it was that Bush worked with Sen. Edward Kennedy on the education bill, causing two audience members who evoked the two old guys in the balcony on "The Muppet Show" to simultaneously shake and nod their heads and mutter.

Talking to reporters after his speech, Rove said neither party would be able to gain political advantage from the Enron matter, since many of the apparent regulatory lapses occurred under a Democratic administration. He also said it was possible the president would take some regulatory actions before the election to deal with pension and corporate oversight, but didn't know if legislation would be ready to sign by November.

Responding to Rove's remarks, in an interview with ABCNEWS, Democratic strategist James Carville said, "Strange that they send the president out to say 'we aren't going to politicize the war.' And they send the president's political adviser out to say 'we are going to politicize the war.'"