Rove's avoidance of military service during the Vietnam War has become an issue in an ongoing presidential campaign debate retreading the military records of President Bush and challenger Sen. John Kerry. Bush's supporters have attacked Kerry's war decorations and statements he made opposing the war. And Kerry backers insist Bush was quietly ushered into the protective ranks of the National Guard to avoid combat, then failed to fullfil the last months of his service obligation.
Democrats cast Rove as the mastermind of a hypocritical Bush team that managed to avoid the draft and now cynically encourages questions about Kerry's three Purple Hearts. Last April, Kerry even mentioned Rove by name, along with Vice President Cheney, saying the two men "went out of their way to avoid their chance to serve."
The Bush camp and a Rove friend counter that casting the man who has been called "Bush's Brain" in that light is defamation.
"Anyone that says that Karl's tactic was to play the hawk, but avoid the service" is slandering his name, says Olympus High School classmate Mark Gustavson, now a Salt Lake City attorney.
Whether or not Rove is behind the attacks on Kerry's Vietnam record, his own draft record and accounts from friends reveal a young man who didn't necessarily agree with the war and managed to avoid being drafted.
Rove's Selective Service records are sparse, but they show a seemingly typical path for many male Utah high school seniors in 1969.
Like most, he registered with the Selective Service while he was a senior at Olympus High School, and he was assigned identification number 42-24-50-1691. Rove was first classified as 1S-H, ineligible to be drafted because he was a high school student.
Gustavson and Rove became friends over their shared distaste for the war in Vietnam. Both high school debate team members, they once were thrown out of a pizza parlor after a heated argument over the war. Another time, they trekked downtown together to protest Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey's speech at the LDS Church Tabernacle.
Far from being a conscientious objector, Gustavson recalls, Rove's opposition to the war was political. He considered the conflict a "political skirmish that was not being properly administered."
"I never heard Karl say, 'I hope I don't get drafted,' " Gustavson says. "Everyone went and registered. No matter how we felt about the war, we understood our legal duty. I don't remember Karl saying he would get married or get a student deferment or do anything that would have earned one a deferment."
But Rove got one anyway. Rove graduated from high school in the spring of 1969 and in June was reclassified 1-A, available to be drafted.
Rove enrolled that fall in the University of Utah. In December the Selective Service System held its first lottery drawing in which numbers were assigned to potential draftees based on their birth dates. The lower the number, the more likely it was the young man would be drafted.
Rove received number 84, or within the top one-fourth of the 365 numbers. It would turn out that the highest lottery number drafted from this group was 195, according the Selective Service, putting Rove's number deep within those that could be drafted.
On Jan. 19, 1970, less than two months after the lottery, Rove underwent a required Armed Forces Physical Examination and was found to be fit for military service.
About a month later, on Feb. 17, 1970, Rove was again reclassified, this time as 2-S, a deferment from the draft because of his enrollment at the University of Utah.
During his two years at the university, Rove studied politics. Beloved professor emeritus J.D. Williams, a staunch Democrat, was his mentor. Rove has said he served an internship through the Hinckley Institute of Politics. And in 1970, he worked on former Republican Sen. Wallace F. Bennett's successful campaign to defeat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Frank Moss.
At the time, a full-time student at the university would have had to take 12 hours a quarter. University records show Rove went to school full-time for four of those quarters. But in the autumn and spring quarters of 1971, Rove was a part-time student, registered for between six and 12 credit hours. In his book, The Draft: 1940- 1973, Texas Tech University history professor George Flynn writes that Selective Service regulations required a student with a draft deferment to study "full-time, pursuing a regular degree, and in senior college. But the definition of full time varied from school to school."
Despite the apparent lapse in his full-time status, Rove maintained his deferment.
At the end of the school year in 1971, Rove told Gustavson he was going to Washington to work for the Republican National Committee as executive director of the College Republicans - a job Bennett reportedly helped him secure.
Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt says Rove enrolled that fall at the University of Maryland in College Park. But a letter he prepared to notify the local draft board in Murray of his transfer never made it to Utah.
"To this day, it is unclear to Mr. Rove what happened to the letter," Schmidt says. "He turned it in to the university. But whether it was lost in the mail or arrived late, the draft board did not get it in time and the deferment was not renewed."
University of Maryland registrar's records show Rove withdrew from classes during the first half of the semester. He continued to work for the party. And on Dec. 14, 1971, he was reclassified as 1-A, available - extended priority, Schmidt says, meaning he could be drafted ahead of everyone else. For four months, Rove was exposed to the draft, but was not called.
However, his risk of being drafted ended on April 27, 1972, when Rove was reclassified again as 1-H, or "not currently subject to processing for induction."
According to Selective Service records, the names of 4.4 million men, along with Rove, essentially were placed at the bottom of draft lists between January and August of 1972.
"That classification was granted to a lot of people at the wind-down of the Vietnam War," says Selective Service spokesman Pat Schuback. "Large numbers of people were reclassified."
The last man inducted entered the Army on June 30, 1973, according to the Selective Service.
Kerry's camp continues to make Rove's draft history the subject of debate.
The Massachusetts senator's medals have been questioned by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Bush lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg resigned after acknowledging he advised both the Swift Boat Veterans and the president's campaign. And former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, a Kerry supporter and Vietnam veteran, earlier this month said, "Karl Rove was behind it all."
Retired Army Col. David Hackworth, a Vietnam veteran and critic, believes Rove is behind the renewed debate about that war nearly 40 years ago. The former war correspondent and online columnist says Rove's strategy as the president's political adviser is to distract from the bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan by focusing the public's attention on Vietnam.
"You're dealing with the Machiavelli of modern politics," Hackworth says. "If you look at his track record, what he is really brilliant at is keeping the opposition from being locked on the real message. Do we know that Iraq is a disaster? No. But we know all about the swift boats."
Schmidt rejects the suggestion that Rove had anything to do with the ads or a larger strategy to question Kerry's Vietnam record. The campaign did not respond to a request for an interview with Rove.
"There is no connection," he says. "That charge is baseless." Schmidt notes that Bush lauded Kerry's service during the Republican National Convention - and delegates applauded him.
And Gustavson says criticism by Democrats - "Clintonistas," he calls them - of Rove's apparent luck is unfair.
"It paints a time in American history with too broad and dramatic a stroke. It wasn't that black and white," Gustavson says.
"There were a lot of legitimate reasons for not going. There were a lot of legitimate reasons for going," he adds. "Some of my friends were just cowards. But I never heard Karl advocate violating that law. That he didn't go makes him like hundreds of thousands of other guys my age who didn't go."
News editor Tom Harvey contributed to this story.