Moments after Christine O’Donnell finished her victory speech Tuesday night in Dover, Del., she invited a state Tea Party leader on stage to speak. The activist promptly extended an unmistakable rhetorical middle finger to the Republican leader who has overnight become a symbol for the hated GOP establishment: Karl Rove.
Rove, the former Bush White House political adviser who still plays a major role in GOP politics, had come to Delaware a year before to ask the Tea Party activists in Delaware to support Republican Rep. Mike Castle for the Senate seat.
Russ Murphy, the executive director of the 9/12 Delaware Patriots, stood onstage next to O’Donnell and described the meeting.
“I interrupted Mr. Rove and I said, ‘Sir with all due respect, we won’t endorse the party,'” Murphy said.
“He said, ‘Well, what I really want to do is tell you folks how to work with the candidate and how to get things done.'”
“And I said, ‘Sir, with all due respect,'” and here Murphy lowered his voice for emphasis, “‘No one is going to tell us how to take care of business.’”
The crowd cheered lustily.
Murphy’s comments were prompted by Rove’s interview only an hour or two earlier on Fox News with Sean Hannity, in which Rove trashed O’Donnell — “I’ve met her. I’ve got to tell you, I wasn’t frankly impressed” — and said Republicans would no longer be able to win the general election.
On Wednesday, O’Donnell revived the war of words in an early morning interview on Fox News, prompting Rove to double down on his criticisms and go into even more detail about the questions surrounding O’Donnell’s past, also in an interview on Fox.
Rove’s comments on Wednesday drew a rebuke – again, on Fox – from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who endorsed O’Donnell a few days before Tuesday’s primary.
“Well, bless his heart. We love our friends, they’re in the machine, the expert politicos,” Palin said when asked about Rove’s comments. “But my message to those who say that the GOP nominee is not electable, or that they’re not even going to try, well I say, ‘Buck up!'”
“It is time to put aside internal power grabs and greed and egos within the Party and to fight united,” Palin said.
The surreal intra-party spat was topped off by the appearance of beleaguered Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele in a taped interview with CNN, where he made a plea for unity.
“How can you claim defeat before you attempt victory? This makes no sense. It makes no sense. So stop it. Stop it,” Steele said, according to a transcript e-mailed to reporters.
But Palin apparently wanted more. After tweeting that conservatives should focus on “unified effort,” the former governor went on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News program and took Rove to task again, calling him this time a “good old boy.”
“It wouldn’t be prudent of me either to get into a tussle with Karl Rove … but what the heck, let’s go ahead and do it,” Palin said with a smile. “Some of these good old boys – and I have nothing against Karl Rove personally, you know he’s the expert – but Bill, some of these folks they are saying that people like Christine O’Donnell and others, Tea Party Americans, can’t win because they don’t want them to win, because they know that … these folks are gonna shake it up.”
“And they are going to do what’s right for America, not necessarily what is right for a political party machine,” Palin said.
In the initial Fox appearance Tuesday night that set off the chain reaction, Rove rattled off a list of questions about O’Donnell’s “checkered background,” and made clear he felt the candidate was almost entirely discredited and perhaps not entirely genuine.
“It does conservatives little good to support candidates who, at the end of the day, while they may be conservative in their public statements, do not evince the characteristics of rectitude and truthfulness and sincerity and characters that voters are looking for,” Rove said. “We’ll see how she can answer these questions. She sure as heck didn’t answer them thus far on the campaign.”
NEXT: An irritated Rove goes off on O’Donnell
Hannity responded that he had interviewed O’Donnell and found her answers to questions about her past “plausible.”
This visibly irritated Rove: “Did you ask her about the people who are following her home to her headquarters and how she’s checked each night in the bushes?” he said, referencing comments she made in an interview with The Weekly Standard.
“I mean there’s just a lot of nutty things she’s been saying that just don’t add up,” Rove said.
Wednesday morning, O’Donnell said that Rove was “seeing that he’s one of the so-called experts whose credibility was hurt last night,” and said that Tea Party activists had told Rove he did not “understand what is going on in the country this year.”
Rove, who did not respond to questions over e-mail, was composed and mild-mannered in his subsequent appearance on Fox, but went much further than he had Tuesday night in holding O’Donnell’s feet to the fire.
“She’s got to answer these troubling questions,” Rove said. “You don’t have an IRS lien put on for your taxes that you failed to pay in 2005, five years later, unless you haven’t paid your taxes.”
“She said it was a technical mistake by the bank why her house was the subject of a foreclosure lawsuit that she lost … Just before the sheriff’s sales she sold the house, on which she owed $90,000 some odd dollars, she sold it to [sic] $135,000 to her boyfriend, who was also her campaign adviser,” Rove continued. “I mean, people are going to want to know more about these. What does she do? Why does she have only $5800 in living expenses. Why did she claim to be a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson since the 1990s when it turns out she just got her degree because she had unpaid college bills that they had to sue her over.”
“You can’t get away with simply saying, ‘Oh go to my website. I’ve got the answers there,'” Rove said, referencing O’Donnell’s answer to NBC’s Matt Lauer on “The Today Show.”
But O’Donnell’s website was not an adequate resource for much of anything Wednesday. The site had been scrubbed of its content — much like Nevada Republican Sharron Angle’s — and replaced by a simple fundraising request.
For Rove, his elevation to Tea Party target is not the first time he has been made out to be a conniving villain, though in the past he was a boogeyman to those on the left. During the Bush presidency, Rove was the Machiavellian puppet master that Democrats and liberals most loved to hate, and he was entangled in several political and legal controversies, including the Valerie Plame affair and the U.S. Attorneys firings probe.
NEXT: Criticism of Rove a reflection of conservative anger at Bush policies
But the target on Rove’s back now may have as much to do with his former boss, President George W. Bush, as it does with Rove himself. Conservative blogger and author Michelle Malkin said that the backlash against Rove is in part because many of Bush’s policies were almost as unpopular as Obama’s with many in the grassroots.
“The conservative base is in full-scale revolt. This is a good and healthy thing,” Malkin wrote. “Close political observers of and on the Right know that the revolt against Big Government/Open-Borders Rove/Bush-ism has been brewing a long time.”
Questions and criticisms of the Bush legacy come at an interesting time, with Bush preparing to embark on a publicity tour to promote his book, “Decision Points,” in advance of its Nov. 9 release.