WASHINGTON -- Embattled White House adviser Karl Rove vowed yesterday to make the war on terrorism a central campaign issue in November, and said Democratic senators looked ''mean-spirited and small-minded" in questioning Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr.
''Republicans have a post-9/11 view of the world. And Democrats have a pre-9/11 view of the world," Rove told Republican activists. ''That doesn't make them unpatriotic, not at all. But it does make them wrong -- deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."
Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean denounced Rove's remarks and renewed his call for the deputy White House chief of staff to be fired for his role in leaking a CIA official's name. ''That is both unpatriotic and wrong," Dean said.
Rove, making a rare public address while under investigation in the CIA leak case, joined Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman in warning GOP leaders against falling prey to the corrupting nature of power.
''The GOP's progress during the last four decades is a stunning political achievement. But it is also a cautionary tale of what happens to a dominant party -- in this case, the Democratic Party -- when its thinking becomes ossified, when its energy begins to drain, when an entitlement mentality takes over, and when political power becomes an end in itself rather than a means to achieve the common goal," Rove told Republican National Committee members.
''We need to learn from our successes," he said, ''and from the failures of others." The admonition reflects growing concerns among senior Republicans that ethics scandals in the Republican-led Congress could hurt the party in November, even among staunch GOP voters who may begin to blame corruption for Congress's runaway spending habits.
Mehlman could not have been more blunt: ''One of the oldest lessons of history is that power corrupts," he said, telling RNC members that any Republicans guilty of illegal behavior should be punished.
The investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff threatens to ensnare at least a half dozen members of Congress of both parties and Bush administration officials. His ties to GOP congressional leaders and the White House pose a particular problem for Republicans. Abramoff, who has admitted to conspiring to defraud his Indian tribe clients, has pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges and is cooperating with prosecutors.
In an unrelated scandal, I. Lewis ''Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, is expected to stand trial in the CIA leak case this summer, just ahead of the midterm elections. The special prosecutor's inquiry is still underway, leaving the fate of other senior White House officials, notably Rove, in doubt.
Reading from a prepared text, Rove called for election-year civility -- ''Our opponents are our fellow citizens, not our enemies" -- and quickly turned to portraying Democrats as weak on defense.
''The United States faces a ruthless enemy -- and we need a commander in chief and a Congress who understand the nature of the threat and the gravity that America finds itself in," Rove said. ''President Bush and the Republican Party do. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many Democrats."
He said some Democrats want to abandon Iraq too soon, which would cause enemies to ''laugh at our failed resolve."
Rove also criticized Democrats for opposing extension of the USA Patriot Act and warrantless eavesdropping, before turning to Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts, and their Democratic opponents on the Senate Judiciary Committee. ''Every effort to smear the name of these good men blew up in the face of those making the malicious charges. Some committee members came across as mean-spirited and small-minded -- and it left a searing impression," Rove said. He accused Senator Edward M. Kennedy of creating ''an ugly display" during Alito's hearing.