Bush takes more hits from own party

Even as fall elections near, Republicans splinter over issues from Mideast to trade.

Democrats have long been a famously fractured party. But lately, as former vice president Al Gore and other Democratic leaders step up attacks on President Bush's policies, the Democrats seem to be coalescing – and it's the GOP that's showing some surprising cracks.

Specifically, Mr. Bush is facing unusually strong criticism from members of his own political base – a potential liability for Republicans, as midterm elections draw near. On everything from his handling of the Mideast crisis to his signing of the campaign-finance reform bill to his approval of higher tariffs on imported steel, conservatives are finding fault with the president – and have been increasingly vocal in their complaints.

It's a surprising turn of events, given Bush's awareness of what can happen when politicians alienate their bases: His father failed to win reelection in part because he lost the support of many conservatives who were angry that he went back on his pledge not to raise taxes. During his first year in office, George W. Bush took steps that pleased the right wing, such as pushing his tax cut through Congress and opposing stem-cell research.

From Beltway to grass roots

While most conservatives still support the president – and are unlikely to abandon him in 2004 – their unhappiness could threaten Republican candidates in this year's congressional elections, say analysts. Party bases typically make up a high percentage of those who vote in midterm elections; so core supporters' discontent could prove costly.

"These off-year elections have much lower turnout, and the party that can activate its base inevitably does better," says Gary Bauer, the former GOP presidential candidate who now heads a conservative group called American Values. "It's something that my party needs to spend a lot more time on."

The discontent among conservatives came to a boil in recent weeks over the administration's Middle East policy, which many Republicans see as muddled and not sufficiently pro-Israel. Conservatives in Congress have been pushing for a resolution of support for Israel, though last week House majority whip Tom DeLay agreed to postpone a vote on the measure, in deference to the administration's objections.

White House officials argue that much of the criticism comes from inside the Beltway, and does not reflect grass-roots sentiment: Most polls show that Bush's approval ratings among Republicans remain in the high 90s.

A growing frustration

Still, Washington conservatives say the administration can't afford to ignore them. "It's something Bush should be concerned about, because eventually what the leaders think filters down to the grass roots," says Donald Devine, vice chairman of the American Con- servative Union.

And some actions – such as White House interference in GOP primaries – have caused clear ripples of discontent among conservatives in the states.

In the California gubernatorial primary, the administration supported the more moderate candidate, Richard Riordan, over conservative Bill Simon. "Conser- vatives in California were just furious about it – and it's one of the reasons Mr. Riordan lost badly on Election Day," says Mr. Bauer.

Equally upsetting to many conservatives was Bush's signing of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill. Many view the bill as an infringement on free speech, and believe Bush simply gave in to political pressure when he chose not to veto it. They also find it galling that Bush would sign a bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain: Conservatives, after all, played a key role in helping Bush defeat him in the South Carolina primary in 2000 – a turning point for the campaign.

The old challenge of balance

Of course, all presidents must conduct balancing acts between pleasing their bases and reaching toward the center. Bill Clinton angered liberals with welfare reform and balancing the budget. Even conservative icon Ronald Reagan drew criticism from the right. But both managed to keep the overwhelming support of their bases.

And by most accounts, the Bush administration has heeded conservative complaints.

Lee Edwards, senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says White House aides regularly attend meetings of Washington's conservative leaders. "They're listening, and they're taking notes," he says.

He predicts that, as fall elections draw near, the administration may make more efforts to appeal directly to base voters: "I think ... they will ... reach out to core constituencies – the leave-us-alone coalition, the Christian right, and so forth – and let them know that they're still important."

And for many conservatives, the motivation to turn out this November may already be strong, regardless of Bush's actions.

With control of Congress hanging in the balance, many are anxious for the GOP to take back the Senate and regain control of the legislative and political agendas. "They desperately want to get the Senate back so that the president can get conservative judges on the courts, and so forth," says Bauer.

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