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Rove's resignation, other recent departures signal a new phase for the Bush presidency

WASHINGTON -- Karl Rove took leave Monday of the man he helped put in the White House nearly seven years ago and in the process opened a new phase of the politically battered Bush presidency as it heads to its final months without some of the cen...

WASHINGTON -- Karl Rove took leave Monday of the man he helped put in the White House nearly seven years ago and in the process opened a new phase of the politically battered Bush presidency as it heads to its final months without some of the central players who shaped it.

Rove, the primary author of President Bush's two successful national campaigns and arguably the most influential and controversial presidential strategist of his generation, became the latest Bush adviser to head for the door, announcing that he will resign on Aug. 31.

The wave of departures signals a broader transition as Bush shifts away from the sort of sweeping domestic initiatives on taxes, education, Social Security and immigration that Rove favored, and refocuses his presidency to a more defensive posture in the face of an opposition Congress and sunken poll ratings.

During his presidency's last 17 months, Bush's domestic front will consist of trying to preserve programs enacted in his first term, finding opportunities for discreet victories and engaging in veto battles with Democrats over spending and taxes. Much of the focus will center on foreign policy, where the stakes remain greater and the outcome more uncertain, particularly regarding the war in Iraq.

The White House labored to dismiss the sense that Rove's resignation underscores a lame-duck presidency, even as it felt like an era was coming to an end on the South Lawn on Monday morning.

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"Karl Rove is moving on down the road," Bush said as the two appeared together for an emotional coda to their14-year political partnership. A few moments later, Bush turned to Rove and added, "I'll be on the road behind you here in a little bit." Rove's voice quavered as he spoke and the two hugged before flying off to Texas together.

Rove, 56, who holds the titles of White House deputy chief of staff and senior adviser, said he had been thinking of leaving for more than a year and wanted to spend more time with his family. Although the object of multiple investigations by the Democratic Congress, Rove scoffed at the notion that they prompted his decision.

"I'm leaving on my own terms and I'm leaving with a clear-eyed realism that this isn't going to mean fewer investigations or subpoenas or weird comments by members of the Democratic caucus," he said in an interview. "These guys are obsessed with me, and they think I'm a convenient and easy target to play to their base and raise money."

Even when he returns to Texas, Rove said he expects that he will be under attack for his role in advising Bush. "I realize that some of the Democrats are Captain Ahab and I'm the great white whale," he said. "I noticed the other day some Democratic staffers were quoted calling me the big fish. Well, I'm Moby Dick and they're after me."

Democrats welcomed Rove's resignation but vowed to continue probing his involvement in the firings of U.S. attorneys, a series of political briefings conducted at various agencies and the use of Republican National Committee email accounts by White House officials. "The list of senior White House and Justice Department officials who have resigned during the course of these congressional investigations continues to grow and today Mr. Rove added his name to that list," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Others blasted Rove as an apostle of division. "Karl Rove was an architect of a political strategy that has left the country more divided, the special interests more powerful and the American people more shut out from their government than any time in memory," said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., was more succinct: "Goodbye, good riddance."

Funny, gracious, energetic, crafty, acerbic, cutthroat and tempestuous, Rove has been perhaps the administration's most celebrated and polarizing figure. A college dropout who worked in the 1970s for George H.W. Bush, he got to know George W. Bush and later orchestrated his rise to the Texas governor's mansion and the White House. "The Architect," the younger Bush once called him. "Bush's brain," derided the critics.

Rove became famous for a brand of politics that emphasized appealing to his party's conservative base and painting Democrats as weak on national security. With his eye on history, he hoped to realign national politics with far-reaching plans to steer taxpayer money to faith-based groups, rewrite immigration laws to appeal to the growing Hispanic population and redefine government to favor more market-based approaches in Social Security, taxes and other arenas. But his second-term agenda collapsed with the popularity of the president and the Iraq war. He spent years under investigation in the CIA leak case and saw the Republican Congress slip away in last year's elections.

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Rove follows other top Bush advisers in departing since the midterm elections, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, White House counsel Harriet Miers, presidential counselor Dan Bartlett, deputy national security advisers J.D. Crouch and Meghan O'Sullivan and budget director Rob Portman. White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten has told senior aides they should leave by Labor Day if they do not plan to stay until the end. "It's a transition," said Bartlett. "There's still a lot of familiar faces. But fresh faces, fresh legs is not a bad thing."

In an interview, Bolten said he expects a couple more departures by next month and added that he probably will redistribute Rove's responsibilities rather than hire a successor because "I don't think Karl can be replaced by one person." More of the burden of political advice will likely fall on Ed Gillespie, who succeeded Bartlett.

Bolten acknowledged the administration was entering a new phase. "The window for legislation is narrower than it was," he said. "But it's not closed on the one hand. And on the other hand, there's a great deal to be done, especially in the foreign policy realm, but also in other realms, without the need for actual legislation." He added: "Even if the next 18 months don't result in enactment of the president's agenda on every one of these items, it's still important to set the terms of the debate."

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