Rove harsh on critics of Iraq war

The presidential adviser speaks at a Republican dinner in Broward, which also serves as a who'swho of GOP candidates for statewide offices.

Published June 3, 2006

FORT LAUDERDALE - Presidential adviser Karl Rove told an enthusiastic crowd of Broward County Republicans on Friday night that the worst mistake the U.S. could make is to "cut and run" in Iraq.

Without mentioning growing opposition to the war or the record-low popularity in polls of his boss, President Bush, Rove gave a resounding defense of the decision to go to war three years ago, and he blasted Democrats who now consider the war a mistake.

Rove saved his harshest criticism for the man Bush defeated in 2004: Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who voted for the war in Iraq but now supports a deadline for withdrawing American troops in Iraq.

"His instinct is to cut and run," Rove said of Kerry. "If America cuts and runs in Iraq, who's going to tell the families that their loss was in vain?"

Rove was the headliner at the Broward Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day dinner, which drew most of the GOP's pool of 2006 statewide candidates. The no-shows included Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, who is running for governor, and Rep. Katherine Harris, who is running for the Senate.

Rove went out of his way to encourage Republicans to help Rep. Clay Shaw, who has represented Broward for 26 years in Congress but is facing a tough re-election fight from Democratic state Sen. Ron Klein of Boca Raton.

In a brief interview before his speech, Rove made clear his lack of enthusiasm for Harris, who trails Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson.

"There's still a primary fight out there," Rove said, noting three little-known Republican candidates. "I would like to see Republicans work their will."

Broward remains the state's most heavily Democratic county, and Republicans are outnumbered here 2-to-1. But steady population growth has swelled the Republican membership to nearly 270,000 voters, making it too big to ignore for most GOP candidates.

Gallagher's absence gave his Republican rival, Attorney General Charlie Crist, an expansive banquet hall to himself. The local party already endorsed Crist, and dozens of guests sported Crist lapel stickers.

Gallagher's spokesman, Albert Martinez, said Gallagher couldn't attend because he had to be at an east Citrus County event Saturday morning. He said Gallagher's absence "doesn't mean Tom is going to stop working for the votes of Broward Republicans."

Rove, who is under investigation in the leak of a CIA operative's identity, thrilled the partisan audience with behind-the-scenes anecdotes in the West Wing or on Air Force One. He recalled his sophisticated computer program to track returns on election night 2004 that contradicted exit polls showing Bush losing in Florida.

"I'll never forget. The first county I clicked was Hernando. Then Pasco. And about that time, Jeb called in," Rove recalled. "I started working my way down the east coast and he said, 'Start with Broward.' ... It was clear, we were running well ahead of where we needed to run, and Jeb said, 'We're going to win, and we're going to win big.' "