WASHINGTON - Republicans are nervously watching the fight over Karl Rove's involvement in a news leak that exposed a CIA officer's identity, fearing that President Bush's chief adviser has become a major political problem.
While the president passed up another chance Wednesday to express confidence in his deputy chief of staff, his political team engineered a series of testimonials from members of Congress who praised Rove and condemned Democratic critics.
"The extreme left is once again attempting to define the modern Democratic Party by rabid partisan attacks, character assassination and endless negativity," said Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., chairman of the GOP congressional committee. The Republican National Committee, virtually a political arm of the White House, urged GOP lawmakers to go public.
Still, several top GOP officials - including some White House advisers - said the fight was becoming a distraction to Bush's agenda. The GOP officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid looking disloyal, said the president may face a credibility problem because his spokesman said in September that anybody involved in the leak would be fired.
These Republicans, all admirers of Rove, said they were surprised and disappointed when Bush stopped short of publicly backing his longtime aide.
A survey of Republicans outside Washington revealed similar concerns, though few officials were willing to go on record.
"I think he should resign," said Jim Holt, a GOP state senator from Arkansas who is running for lieutenant governor. He joked, "I hope Karl Rove doesn't come gunning for me."
Meanwhile, Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, called on Bush Thurday to fire Rove, saying that the president's confidant had engaged in an "abuse of power."
In an interview broadcast on NBC's "Today" show, Wilson decried what he called a White House "stonewall" in the wake of the Rove revelations.
Bush said Wednesday that he would not discuss the matter further until a criminal investigation is finished.
"This is a serious investigation," the president told reporters after a Cabinet meeting, where Rove sat just behind him. "And it is very important for people not to prejudge the investigation based on media reports."
Later in the day, White House spokesman Scott McClellan insisted that Rove did have Bush's support. "As I indicated yesterday, every person who works here at the White House, including Karl Rove, has the confidence of the president," McClellan said.
Across town, a federal grand jury heard more testimony in its probe into whether anyone in the administration illegally leaked the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame in July 2003. Her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, a critic of the administration's rationale for invading Iraq, has said the leak was an attempt to discredit him.
Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, who wrote an article that identified Plame, appeared before the grand jury for 2 1/2 hours.
Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, said in a statement, "Cooper's truthful testimony today will not call into question the accuracy or completeness of anything Rove has previously said to the prosecutor or the grand jury. If the prosecutor seeks additional information from Rove in light of Cooper's testimony, Rove will promptly supply it.
"Rove has cooperated completely with the special prosecutor, and he has been repeatedly assured he is not a target of the investigation," Luskin said. "Rove has done nothing wrong. We're confident he will not become a target after the special prosecutor has reviewed all evidence."
Each political side intensified its attempts to discredit the other on Wednesday, producing a flurry of press releases and news conferences.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and three other Senate Democratic leaders - Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan - sent a letter to Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, asking him to release results of an initial internal investigation into the leak.
MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group, announced its members would stage a protest in front of the White House on Thursday to demand Rove's firing.
A survey of more than a dozen Republicans who live outside Washington found most siding with the White House. "It's a tempest in a teapot," said Denzil Garrison, former state GOP leader in Oklahoma.
"I have not heard a person bring it up in Michigan," said GOP consultant John Truscott of Lansing, Mich. "It's just not an issue out here."
Holt, the lieutenant governor candidate in Arkansas, said he was assigned to the National Security Agency while serving in the Army from 1989 to 1996. "If I were an operative, I sure wouldn't want anybody to reveal my identity," he said.
The White House previously has said Rove was not involved in the leak. But an internal Time magazine e-mail disclosed over the weekend suggested Rove mentioned to Time reporter Cooper that Wilson's wife was a CIA agent.
Rove's allies defend the White House's original denial by saying that Rove never mentioned Wilson's wife by name, a distinction that Holt said made no difference. "Is almost like saying it depends on what the definition of `is' is," he said, referring to former President Clinton's defense in the Monica Lewinsky case.
McClellan said Bush had not expressed confidence in Rove in a session with reporters because no one had asked him that directly. Still, Bush had three opportunities in two days to defend Rove publicly after questions about the case were posed to him and, for whatever reasons, he chose not to do so.