By Samuel P. Jacobs
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nearly a decade ago he was dubbed "Bush's Brain," for his influence in guiding Republican George W. Bush to the U.S. presidency.
This year, Karl Rove could be Mitt Romney's brawn.
Perhaps no one, besides Romney himself, will have a greater influence on the course of the Republican presidential campaign this fall than Rove, the brash, often-controversial architect of Bush's two successful bids for the White House.
Bush called Rove "Turd Blossom," a term Texans use to describe a flower that grows from a pile of cow dung. This year, thanks to the American Crossroads "Super PAC" organization that he co-founded, Rove will have vast resources to fertilize Romney's campaign: a massive wallet, one of the loudest megaphones in conservative media, and close ties to Romney's campaign.
It's a dramatic re-emergence for Rove, who resigned as Bush's deputy chief of staff in 2007 amid questions about his role in the firing of a federal prosecutor.
In an interview with Reuters, Rove described his vision for Crossroads, which he founded with his friend Ed Gillespie in 2010. Crossroads - which has received seven-figure donations from several wealthy Republicans - hopes to spend $300 million on this election.
Beyond helping Romney match Democratic President Barack Obama's vast fundraising effort, Rove said he wants Crossroads to be a permanent figure on the political landscape - a big-money, independent group that works in concert with the Republican Party on strategy and involves its most influential donors.
Rove forecast a nasty presidential race and called the Obama campaign's complaints about Romney's penchant for secrecy a veiled, "bigoted" attack on the Republican's Mormon faith - a claim Obama's staff rejects.
On Tuesday, one wing of Rove's organization, Crossroads GPS, reported raising $77 million in donations during 2010 and 2011. A healthy share - $17 million — had been paid out to fellow conservative groups, elevating Rove's presence among advocacy organizations now boosted by his fundraising.
American Crossroads, the other wing of Rove's machine, has raised $27 million, more than any other political action committee (PAC) involved in the presidential race except Restore Our Future, a Super PAC that supports Romney.
A 2010 Supreme Court ruling allowed Super PACs like American Crossroads to receive unlimited donations from groups and individuals. Tax law allows non-profits like Crossroads GPS to keep its donors anonymous as long as a majority of its money is spent on non-political "social welfare" purposes - for example, TV ads that focus on issues rather than specific candidates.
Democrats have been slow to accept Super PACs, saying they will corrupt elections by giving outsized influence to the very wealthy. Donations to campaigns are limited to $2,500 per individual for the primary season, and another $2,500 for the November 6 election.
Rove counters that his organization simply levels the playing field against liberal groups and unions that have poured millions into their own causes for years.
"I got sick and tired of fighting with one hand tied behind my back," Rove said, adding that he started Crossroads "after getting our brains beat in for decades" in campaign fundraising.
Early ads purchased by American Crossroads suggest that like Restore Our Future, Crossroads will help Romney by attacking Obama and his policies.
Last week, Crossroads released a radio ad in Ohio and Pennsylvania coal country blasting Obama's Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Lisa Jackson, over federal regulations.
In the radio spot, a United Mine Workers union leader says, "I would say this: The Navy SEALS shot Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and Lisa Jackson shot us in Washington."
Rove's role in the 2012 campaign offers an intriguing storyline.
Under the law, Romney's campaign may not coordinate its activities with Crossroads. Romney advisers say they have no idea what Rove is what up to, but campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul praised groups such as Crossroads for their help.
"President Obama and his political team have signaled they will spend a billion dollars to hold onto power," Saul said. "We are pleased that independent groups will be active in fighting this entrenched power so the country can get back to work."
Rove said he talks with Romney advisers but devotes his attention to his own organization. "I can say, 'So and so wants to help,'" Rove said.
Romney's camp is stacked with people who have worked with Rove. This month, Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, left Crossroads to join Romney as a senior adviser.
Another figure who straddles the worlds of Romney and Rove is Carl Forti, who has been dubbed "Karl Rove's Karl Rove." Forti is a political director at Crossroads and launched the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future. He was political director for Romney's unsuccessful presidential bid in 2008.
Romney's chief of staff is Beth Myers, the former Massachusetts governor's right-hand woman since 2002. Myers worked with Rove in Texas campaigns three decades ago, and now is overseeing Romney's search for a vice presidential running mate.
"She and Karl still remain friends," said Doug Gross, who led Romney's Iowa campaign in 2008. "Karl has been through these wars and can provide her with sound advice."
Rove does not need to make a phone call to let the Romney campaign know what he's thinking. Romney aides need only turn on Fox News, for which he is analyst or check his opinion columns in the Wall Street Journal.
"There are a lot of folks who wish they were in the same position that Karl is," said longtime Republican strategist Dave Carney.
MIXING IT UP WITH DEMOCRATS
With Bush in quiet retirement in Texas, Rove remains a favorite punching bag for Democrats, and seems to relish public spats with them.
Rove told Reuters that the White House, and particularly Obama senior adviser David Axelrod, are showing bigotry by calling Romney secretive. Rove said he sees such criticism as a veiled dig at Romney's Mormon faith.
"I saw with interest that this morning David Axelrod said it's not (Romney's) religion, it's these other things. That's a very subtle way of saying, 'It's his religion,'" Rove said. "It's how they do it in Chicago - innuendo, code words, and ... a religiously bigoted campaign, trying to make the fact that he's a Mormon into an off-putting thing."
Axelrod scoffed at Rove's criticism.
"No one needs lectures on political morality from Karl Rove," Axelrod said. "But I fully understand why a guy who is running a $250 million negative campaign on behalf of Mitt Romney, funded by huge, secret contributions, would be offended by a discussion about public disclosure."
Democrats often chide Rove by citing the controversies that surrounded him during the Bush administration.
Rove was investigated, but not indicted, in the case involving a White House leak that exposed Valerie Plame Wilson as a covert operative for the CIA.
And in 2007, Rove resigned as Bush's deputy chief of staff while under subpoena from the U.S. Senate to testify about the firing of a federal prosecutor that Democrats said reflected politicization of the Justice Department.
Last week, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina wrote in an e-mail to supporters, "Karl Rove is saying that President Obama isn't 'up to the job.' Does anyone really need a reminder of what happened when they were in charge?"
For those in Romney's circle, the attacks on Rove are a relief: Any shots thrown Rove's way are not directed at Romney.
For Rove, thanks to Crossroads, the attacks are likely continue.
"Part of the objective was to set up Crossroads and ... have it be a fixture," Rove said. "We want it to have a permanent presence."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Will Dunham)