WASHINGTON -- Karl Rove won't say it aloud, but he is afraid of Rick Perry: afraid that the smack-talking Texas governor will wreck the GOP's chances of winning the White House and the Senate in 2012.
The Perry-Rove story is shaping up as the ultimate tale of dangerously unintended consequences, with Rove in the role of Dr. Frankenstein and Perry as his living, rampaging political creation.
Insiders know that Rove helped launch Perry's career by advising Perry's successful run for agriculture commissioner in 1990.
But the larger, deeper point is that Rove designed and built the Texas Republican machine that has now allowed Perry to go national -- even after Rove and company tried (and failed) to stop him by running Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) against him for re-election.
Rove and much of the rest of the GOP Texas establishment was and is embarrassed by Perry: his rootin'-tootin' style; his naked plays for the votes of the prayerful; his sometimes almost violent accusatory language and his preference for sound bites so pronounced he makes George W. Bush seem like Pericles.
Before Perry announced his bid, Rove was cautious in his comments. "I think he can be a formidable candidate," Rove told The Huffington Post. "He is the governor of Texas, and he can be a force."
But Rove has since taken to the Fox airwaves to warn Perry to pipe down, especially after the governor warned Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke that he would be "treated ugly" in Texas and regarded as a "traitor" if he expanded the money supply to fight recession.
Yet Rove's public comments only scratched the surface of his deeper concerns, according to his friends and associates. They cited Perry's reliance on federally supported development deals -- undercutting his states-on-their-own theory of American government; what they described as sweetheart deals with former staffers and, as one insider said, "Perry's total shallowness and refusal to dig deep on the issues. "All he wants to know is the sound bite. He doesn't care about anything else."
There is a good measure of defensiveness in the Bush crowd's dismissal of Perry. It is though they are staring into a cracked mirror and seeing the flaws of their favorite son, George W. Bush.
The first irony is that the man Rove made president -- George W. Bush -- was accused of a similar reliance on simple sound bite thinking. Though Bush was better read and more thoughtful than outsiders gave him credit for -- and his grades at Yale were much better than Perry's at Texas A&M -- Bush was famously and fatally incurious about the fine points of policymaking.
Bush also was accused of relying on cornpone Texas-isms, though he sometimes expressed them imperfectly given his education at Andover, Yale and Harvard. Perry is pure Paint Creek.
And they saw Bush as a man willing to do bipartisan deals with Democrats -- unlike Perry. In fact, however, the Bush record of bipartisanship, in Austin and in Washington, was not as robust as advertised.
But the biggest irony is that Rove, a brilliant strategist and tactician, built the modern GOP that Perry inherited. Rove did it in three ways.
One, by perfecting and relying on direct-mail campaigning. Rove, whose roots were in organizing for College Republicans, established a direct-mail company in Texas in the early 1980s, and quickly set about making that his route to power -- and his method for getting candidates elected.
Direct mail puts a premium on the pungently and aggressively-worded message aimed at discrete audiences -- in Rove's case, the bedrock of conservatives in the state of Texas. It was and remains too expensive to reach them all through television advertising. Now email is a preferred method; direct mail was the email of the day.
The result was a kind of politics that appeals directly and vehemently to a motivated base. It was something that Bush could do moderately well; it is something that Perry was born to do.
Rove also built the party by attacking trial lawyers and turning elections of judges into spirited, punch-and-counterpunch campaigns. It's only a short step from attacking the legal and judicial establishment to a more populist attack on the bona fides of government itself.
And Rove helped ensure that Texas congressional districts were redrawn in a way that made partisan victories for both sides a sure thing -- thus putting a premium on GOP candidates who spoke to the base, as Perry does arguably better than Bush ever could.
At first, Rove and company viewed Perry as little more than an overly ambitious annoyance. The Bush team was not pleased when Perry won the lieutenant governorship in 1998 after Bush's friend Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock decided not to run for re-election.
Some other early Perry mentors (and former Rove clients) still support him, among them former Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. But it isn't clear how enthusiastic Gramm will ultimately be, since he has said that his dream candidate in 2012 wasn't Perry, but rather Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
And yet Perry has some things Bush never had: a truly modest upbringing in Texas; lots of flight time as a real pilot in the Air Force (compared with Bush's meager National Guard service) and an ability to charm voters on TV and on the stump in an almost alarmingly intimate way.
The whole story seems to prove one point above all: that the GOP has moved so far to the right and is so angry at Washington and at public life, that Karl Rove is a soothing force.
And the story begs a question: when will George W. Bush have something to say?
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Perry took over as lieutenant governor after the death of Bob Bullock, when in fact Bullock chose not to run for re-election and died later in 1999.