Former White House strategist Karl Rove may be trying some new political tricks to help fellow Republican Mitt Romney secure the party's vice presidential nomination.
Rove, who left his post as a top adviser to President Bush last year and now serves as a commentator for Fox News, has long talked up Romney's credentials for the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket.
But lately, Rove has been pointing out Romney turned in an "uneven performance" in his own failed presidential bid, saying the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City made mistakes because of his limited political experience.
Political analysts say the tougher talk about Romney's flaws may well be an attempt to boost Romney's chances of being chosen vice president by distancing him from an unpopular administration.
"Having talked up Mitt Romney, he creates a bit of a danger of linking him to President Bush," said Robert George, a Princeton law professor and director of that university's James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
"As Karl Rove himself knows, you don't want to do that to someone you actually want to promote as vice president," George said. "He'll make sure Mitt Romney is not portrayed by others as the candidate handpicked for McCain by Karl Rove."
George said Rove's "mild criticism" is intended to separate Romney from the administration. "You don't want to hug him too closely," the New Jersey professor said of Romney. "If you hug him too closely, you suffocate him."
Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Rove is being careful not to actually endorse Romney for just that reason.
"He would be the first to realize his endorsement could carry unwanted baggage," said Jowers, a longtime Romney supporter who now heads Utah Lawyers for McCain. "A positive political analysis from Rove is very helpful while an endorsement might be the kiss of death."
Jowers said the Romney presidential campaign has felt "definitely a sense of encouragement" from Bush and his closest advisers, including Rove. Bush waited until the GOP nomination was settled before endorsing McCain.
As for Rove's recent comments, Jowers said "who knows what Karl is up to. He usually is thinking a few chess moves ahead with every comment. No one has been more outspoken that Mitt Romney is the best possible vice presidential candidate for McCain."
Another professor, Matthew Wilson of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, also said Romney should avoid too close a tie to Rove. "Mitt Romney certainly doesn't want to be seen as Karl Rove's creature," said Wilson, who specializes in religion and politics.
Wilson suggested Rove may be coming across as critical of Romney because he is concerned that McCain isn't listening to him.
"It may be that he senses McCain is going to go in another direction, and he doesn't want to be perceived as giving advice that has not been heeded," Wilson said.
Rove told the Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills on Monday that while Romney probably had the best campaign organization of any Republican candidate, he failed to connect with voters.
And last month, Rove made it a point on "Fox News Sunday" to offer a list of Romney's flaws even as he praised him for his executive experience in business and as a former governor of Massachusetts, as well as with the Olympics.
"This is the guy who talked about environments and marching with Martin Luther King and so forth. And there's also the Mormon problem, which was really sort of astonishing to me," said Rove, who grew up in Utah.
The Mormon "problem" that Rove described was the negative reaction some voters had to Romney's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the idea of a Mormon president.Wilson said Romney's faith is only a "minor factor" in considering whether he should be the vice presidential nominee. "It is not irrelevant, but it's not as important as the person at the top of the ticket," the Texas professor said.