Karl Rove, the architect of President George W. Bush's presidential wins, said Republicans will be defined this year by their effort to block Democrats' efforts for health care reform.
"This year is going to be defined by Republicans and conservatives by what we oppose," he told Utahns Friday. But they can't stop there, Rove added. Going into the future, the party needs to make clear what it would do differently from the Democrats.
"We're going to be defined going into the 2012 presidential election by who we are and what we're for. It can't just be 'no.' Conservatives have to have thoughtful ideas about who we are and what we'll do."
And to formulate those ideas, the party needs people like Sen. Bob Bennett, Rove told a friendly audience of about 500 during a campaign appearance for Bennett at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City.
"He has a face for radio, let's admit it. Yet his colleagues admire the leadership and thoughtfulness that he has, so, look, I'm for him," Rove said. "Senator Bennett is one of those people who's going to be vital to the future of our party in getting us to think about what we're for and what it means."
Rove, who was in Utah for his 40th Olympus High School reunion, campaigned for Bennett, who finds himself in a contested Republican primary, facing a handful of challengers who complain that the three-term incumbent has lost touch with his conservative roots.
In the hour-and-a-half discussion, Rove touched on an array of topics, defending the Bush administration's record on spending, expressing outrage at the Obama administration's decision to consider prosecution of CIA interrogators for using enhanced methods, and telling stories of his years working in the White House.
Rove said Bennett was a leader on entitlement reform - Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid - which have cost projections that Bennett has said are unsustainable. Bennett was a point man on the Bush administration's push to allow partial privitization of Social Security accounts.
Rove said that he supports Bennett's work on the Healthy Americans Act - the health care bill Bennett is co-sponsoring with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon - as an alternative to President Obama's health care reform. "It's a good bill, not exactly the bill you or I like, each and every section," he said, but it provides for more portability and competition for health insurance.
Jason Powers, campaign manager for Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, pointed out that even Rove has problems with Bennett's health plan.
"It sounds to me like Karl Rove came into town and criticized Bob Bennett's bill to nationalize health insurance," Powers said.
Bennett said his bill is not a negotiating tool on health care, but it will be there as an alternative after Democratic reforms are blocked. "The No. 1 assignment in 2009 is to kill Obamacare," Bennett said.
Rove also defended the federal spending under the Bush administration, saying that, overall, nondefense discretionary spending grew more slowly than inflation during the last years of the Bush administration.
During the Bush years, overall discretionary spending grew at a rate in excess of 30 percent, according to figures from the White House budget office.
"We spent, we spent dramatically more on national defense, we spent more on national security, we spent more on border security," Rove said.
Bennett's campaign manager and son, Jim Bennett, said the campaign also held a private reception for donors to the campaign, but it would likely only cover the costs of staging the event. Cherilyn Bacon Eagar, one of several candidates challenging Bennett for the GOP nomination, said she doesn't think endorsements like Rove's will sway Republican delegates.
"I think Utahns are concerned about Washington insiders, and I think they are looking more for a new fresh face that hasn't had that kind of influence going on in whatever backroom deals are going on in Washington," she said.