President Bush's top strategist, Karl Rove, is leaving as the Republican Party's political agenda is being passed to a new crop of presidential candidates, one of whom will set the party's election message early next year.
With the likelihood that the 2008 Republican nomination will be all but nailed down in February — by which point nearly three dozen primaries and caucuses will have been held — Mr. Rove's powerful White House role in shaping his party's strategy over the past seven years will be turned over to a new team of political advisers serving the party's presumptive nominee.
"We are at a time when the focus is beginning to shift away from the White House and toward the campaign trail. So the times do not demand that a message maestro commands all aspects of the Republican message," said Frank Donatelli, White House political director under President Reagan.
"I suspect the Republican campaign committees will be striking out on their own. You're going to see a less centralized message and a more decentralized one, at least up until the Republican convention next year," he said.
Also fueling Mr. Rove's departure were the bleak prospects for the administration's remaining agenda, which faces little chance with a Democrat-controlled Congress in the midst of the 2008 election cycle.
Nevertheless, the decision announced yesterday stunned some party advisers.
"I was surprised at the announcement. I thought Rove would have been the last one out the door," said Republican campaign strategist Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.
With Mr. Bush's approval scores at near-record lows, and Republicans facing another difficult election year, Mr. Rove decided that the political baton was being passed to another generation of strategists and that it was time to return to private life, close friends said.
"He goes out as the undisputed heavyweight of political consultants and will be able to spend his next year helping Bush plan his post-presidency, set up his presidential library and transition," Mr. Reed said.
Other strategists said that although Mr. Rove's departure leaves a big hole in Mr. Bush's tight circle of advisers, his responsibilities would be spread around to several White House officials. Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman and a special adviser to the president, "would be best-positioned to pick up that job," Mr. Donatelli said.