George W. Bush may have secured the presidency this week. But the real winner was Karl Rove.

The White House political czar has solidified his position as the nation’s campaigner-in-chief. Republicans love him, Democrats fear him, and everyone now agrees that Rove is the political genius of the age.

So, let’s listen to Rove.

In the epilogue of Bob Woodward’s book, Plan of Attack, the author writes about how Rove saw the presidential race in early February, 2004.

Noting that Rove believed the war in Iraq was turning into “a potential negative” for the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, Woodward wrote, “Previously, Rove had claimed he was salivating at the prospect that the Democrats would nominate former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race. But Dean had imploded and Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, had won 12 of the first 14 Democratic primary contests and it looked like he was headed for the nomination.”

What did Rove have to say about this development? “‘The good news for us is that Dean is not the nominee,’ Rove now argued to an associate in his second floor West Wing office. Dean’s unconditional opposition to the Iraq War could have been potent in a face-off with Bush. ‘One of Dean’s strengths though was he could say, I’m not part of that crowd down there.’ But Kerry was very much a part of the Washington crowd and he had voted in favor of the resolution for war. Rove got out his two-inch-think loose-leaf binder titled ‘Bring It On.’ It consisted of research into Kerry’s 19-year record in the Senate. Most relevant were pages 9-20 of the section on Iraq.”

Woodward explained that, “Rove believed they had Kerry pretty cold on voting to give the president a green light for war and then backing off when he didn’t like the aftermath or saw a political opportunity. Whatever the case, Rove sounded as if he believed they could inoculate the president on the Iraq War in a campaign with Kerry.”

“Rove,” Woodward observed, “was gleeful.”

Ten months later, as the returns rolled in on Tuesday night, Rove’s glee seemed well placed.

After every imaginable revelation about the missteps, misdeeds and lies that the Bush administration used to steer the country into the Iraq misadventure, and after all the news about the quagmire it had become, America effectively said to George W. Bush: We trust you to manage the mess more than we trust John Kerry.

This is the most painful reality of the fall campaign of 2004: For all the talk about Iraq, the debate about the U.S. occupation of that country never really took hold.

Kerry tried to offer himself up as a clear alternative to Bush, and from a stylistic standpoint he succeeded. But when the debate got down to the practical question of when American troops would be out of harm’s way — and when the Iraqis will really be running things in their own country — about all Kerry had to offer was a vague sooner-rather-than-later promise that sounded a bit too much like the “secret plan” to get U.S. troops out of Vietnam that Richard Nixon peddled in 1968.

It is a stretch to suggest that Howard Dean would necessarily have been a better foe for Bush than Kerry. Dean had enough baggage to fill several of those loose-leaf folders on Rove’s desk.

But, at a fundamental level, Rove was right. A Democratic challenger who could have distanced him-or herself from the use-of-force resolution and Bush’s plan of attack would have been, as Woodward suggests, “potent in a face-off with Bush.”

To be sure, Bush lost the actual debates. But the results of the election suggest that he did not loose the broader debate about the war. Hindsight is always 20-20, but it is worth noting that a lot of progressives rejected Kerry’s candidacy during the primary season because they feared that — in light of his vote on the use-of-force resolution — he could not hold Bush fully accountable for the rush to war that has now cost so many American and Iraqi lives. They, like Karl Rove, were proven right on Tuesday.