Rancor over Miers exposes divide in conservative base


WASHINGTON -- President Bush's once-solid relationship with some of his strongest supporters began to crumble last week, after an angry backlash against his latest Supreme Court pick exposed deeper disillusionment within his base over his leadership.

The tensions are threatening to thwart Bush's efforts to regain his footing after Hurricane Katrina, weakening his hand as he wrangles with Congress over huge storm-related spending proposals and undermining support for some of his highest priorities, such as allowing illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens, said analysts and party strategists.

The nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court was the last straw for some conservatives, who said they already felt betrayed by the return of big government under Bush, the drawn-out war in Iraq and a botched effort to partially privatize Social Security.

"What's happened is, where a year ago, people would have given [Bush] the benefit of the doubt, now I think there's a general disinclination to, and that's why we're at a crossroads," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the conservative-dominated Republican takeover of the House in the 1994 election. "I don't think anyone doubts that the president is personally a conservative, but there's concern that we haven't seen his conservatism in effective action."

Miers' nomination also exposed a profound split in the Republican base, between religious conservatives who identify with Bush's evangelical faith and maintain a virtually unshakeable trust in him, and a more skeptical set of fiscal conservatives and opinion leaders who are increasingly frustrated with Bush's policies and openly disdainful of his leadership.

Bush and his senior aides spent much of the week trying to repair his image, pleading for conservatives to trust that Miers would be, in his words, "a fine judge."

The president was even asked, during a Rose Garden news conference, whether he was still a conservative. "Proudly so, proudly so," Bush responded.

Take for granted

Some veterans of the conservative movement, which has gained prominence in the Republican Party over the past quarter-century, say that Bush -- having run the final campaign of his career in 2004 -- is starting to take his allies for granted.

Many of them describe Hurricane Katrina as a disenchanting turning point, when Bush's lackluster response reflected poorly on the competence of his administration, while his willingness to spend freely on relief and recovery sparked questions about his commitment to fiscal restraint.

"After a good relationship during the campaign last year, things have sort of gone downhill this year, and there is great unhappiness" on a range of issues, said Paul M. Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation. He listed Bush's willingness to tolerate excessive federal spending, an overly permissive approach to immigration and the failure to push through private Social Security accounts as among the biggest disappointments to his base.

"It reminds me of the malaise period of Jimmy Carter," Weyrich said. "There just sort of is no real focus."

Some analysts doubt that Bush, who still enjoys strong backing from religious conservatives, is in serious trouble with his base. The vocal complaints, they argue, are evidence of activists flexing their muscles in anticipation of a broader fight for conservative dominance within the Republican Party in 2008.

"For the most part, I think conservatives stand by their man, and what has them frustrated is what they see as a general attempt by liberals and the media to beleaguer this president," said David Hill, a Houston-based Republican consultant.

Bedrock of support

One faction that seems to be sticking close to the president, at least for now, is the powerful constellation of evangelical groups that has comprised the bedrock of conservative support for Bush, a born-again Christian, through much of his career.

"For the most part, evangelicals continue to trust the president, and continue to believe that the president is making good decisions. We are investing a level of trust in him," said Barrett Duke, a lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention.

The group has "tremendous confidence" in the president when it comes to nominating judges, Duke said, because of Bush's track record and the importance he has placed on choosing conservative judges in the past.

The White House rushed last week to make it known that Miers, who was born a Roman Catholic, became a born-again Christian in her mid-30s -- a revelation that pleased evangelical leaders, but one that other conservatives complained was being overplayed.

Bush's reservoir of trust with religious groups might also be deeper because evangelical Christian voters generally aren't as concerned about fiscal issues, including enactment of a costly prescription drug benefit and soaring federal deficits, that have alarmed other Republicans.

"Evangelicals aren't as anti-government as some other conservative groups are," Duke said.

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