WASHINGTON - Word that Fox News has moved to limit Karl Rove's appearances in the aftermath of U.S. President Barack Obama's decisive re-election victory in November has fuelled speculation that the longtime Republican operative's grip on the party is finally slipping.
Nicknamed "Bush's brain" when he was a top aide to George W. Bush, Rove was apparently given a time-out by Fox from his most visible pulpit as president Roger Ailes apparently attempts to undo some of the damage inflicted upon the network by Romney cheerleaders last month.
Network officials have confirmed that Fox producers must now get pre-clearance before booking either Rove or Dick Morris, another Republican pundit who predicted a landslide win for Mitt Romney over Obama on Nov. 6.
According to Rove's website, he's still scheduled to appear on two Fox News shows next week.
But even Ailes was startled by Rove's infamous on-air meltdown on election night when the network declared Obama the winner.
Ailes later recounted in an interview that he'd had a "what the?" reaction as he watched Rove challenge his network's election callers on-air.
"Rove was wrong," Ailes said. "He backed down. Our guys were right."
In the days following the election, Rove also accused Obama of "suppressing the vote" by criticizing Romney's policy proposals. As well, he's been facing tough questions for weeks from wealthy Republican donors who forked out US$300 million to Rove's pro-Romney Super PAC, Crossroads, and had nothing to show for it on Nov. 7.
One of those donors, legendary conservative activist Richard Viguerie, called for Republicans to purge both Rove and Ed Gillespie from their ranks. Gillespie helped found Crossroads before leaving to manage Romney's ill-fated campaign.
"In any logical universe, no one would give a dime to their ineffective super PACs," Viguerie said in a statement in the days following the election.
Rick Tyler, a former strategist for a pro-Newt Gingrich Super PAC, agreed, calling Crossroad a "colossal failure."
"Rove has too much control over the purse strings," Tyler fumed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I don't think donors are ever going to invest in that level again because it turns out that the architect didn't know what he was talking about."
Rove was the public face of the $1 billion effort to deny Obama a second term and return the U.S. Senate to Republican control. Since Romney's defeat, he's spent the last few weeks making amends.
One Republican consultant says Rove's heyday is far from over.
"Obviously when you're high profile and you make a bold prediction that proves to be off base, it hurts your credibility," Matt Mackowiak said in an interview.
"But Crossroads played a major role in the campaign, and will continue to be the biggest Republican organization of its kind, and I agree with Rove that if there hadn't been as many donations as there were, the result of the election would have been much, much worse."
Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who has long watched Rove's career, says the Republican operative's "access to a bottomless pool of dumb money in Texas" will ensure he remains a party mover and shaker for years to come.
"That money was the foundation of his fundraising for Crossroads in the early going of the campaign, and some of the biggest contributors to Crossroads were from Texas," Jillson said.
"Those donors aren't going to abandon him, and since he lacks the embarrassment gene, he's not likely to take himself out of the game."
Another political observer, however, argues that the sun is setting on Rove's career as a Republican soothsayer. Rove had developed a name for himself as a brilliant political strategist, but the 2012 election has tainted that reputation.
"American politics is rife with people who were in the right place at the right time at a critical moment — you had James Carville behind Bill Clinton in 1992, for example, and you had Rove behind Bush in 2000 and 2004," said James Heaney, an assistant professor of organizational studies and political science at University of Michigan.
"These were people who truly understood a particular moment in political history; they were able to put their finger on the pulse and develop brilliant strategy."
But the world changes, Heaney added.
"And so people like Karl Rove are now out of date. They have had their moment in the sun, but now the party needs someone new, and it's not Karl Rove or Dick Morris."
There are future Karl Roves out there, Heaney said, who possess a better understanding of the rapidly changing face of America and ideas that will appeal to the party's base while attracting voters traditionally wary of Republicans.
"Karl Rove had eight years of making a huge difference in the way politics was played in America, but those years are gone," he said.
"He's not a nobody, but there are other people out there who get what's going on with the electorate, and they have ideas, and they are not people like Karl Rove and Dick Morris."