Washington Secrets

Rove's ties to Reagan: A technicality or taking too much credit?

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Politics,Paul Bedard,Washington Secrets

Four days after GOP political guru Karl Rove sparked a war with conservatives by claiming he directed the 1980 Texas presidential campaign for Ronald Reagan, friends have come forward to back him up.

Jim Francis, who was the political advisor to then-Texas Gov. Bill Clements, told Secrets Monday that Rove was executive director of the GOP Victory Campaign in Texas in 1980, a massive grassroots political operation that coordinated closely with the official Reagan campaign in Texas.

"It handled nothing but the Reagan campaign," said Francis. Rove, he added, "ran the Victory committee...and that's the God's honest truth."

Rove on Thursday said on Fox that he was the "director of the Texas campaign for Ronald Reagan in the fall of 1980." Angry Reaganites assumed he meant the Reagan campaign, which handled Reagan TV ads and candidate travel, and not Victory, which did get out the vote operations and other grassroots chores.

Reagan biographer Craig Shirley was called in to referee and said he had no evidence Rove ever worked for Reagan's campaign. Other Reaganites agreed. And on Monday, another Reagan biographer, former Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon emailed: "You may quote me as saying he's dead wrong, and I covered every day of that campaign as you know."

It's unclear why, as Clement's Victory Campaign executive director, Rove wasn't well-known in Reagan campaign circles or given credit for helping the Gipper's effort.

Take 1980 Reagan campaign aide Roger Stone's reaction to Rove. In email, be said, "I attended several national meetings of the Reagan campaign leadership. I have no memory of Karl Rove 'running" Texas. I never heard his name. He may have worked on a phone bank somewhere or weaseled some direct-mail business from the state party Victory fund. Rove is a Bushman-never a Reaganite."

For Rove's supporters, the difference between working directly for Reagan's campaign and Victory is a technicality. Plus, said Francis, when the Reagan campaign wanted details about what was happening in Texas, they went to Clements and Rove's Victory Campaign.

But the difference between the two is key for old bull Republicans. "To Reaganites it is a very important difference," said Shirley.

Many Reagan advisors recall that Rove and Clements were closer to George H.W. Bush, who ran against Reagan but was eventually picked as his vice presidential nominee. Francis said that after Reagan's nominating convention, Clements asked him to set up the Victory campaign. But his son drowned around that time, so the job of executive director was passed to Rove.

Over the weekend, other Reagan officials said they didn't recall Rove's elevated position in the Reagan effort. Notably, Ernest Angelo, Reagan's Texas campaign chairman and campaign manager, said: "I'm not much for titles, but I can assure you Karl Rove was materially involved since he was working for me and Gov. Clements in the campaign."

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