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Conservatives wary of Miers

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But for movement conservatives not defined by faith, such arguments didn't go far enough. Manuel Miranda, a former aide on judicial nominations to Senate majority leader Bill Frist (R) of Tennessee, says that conservatives in his Third Branch Coalition, representing some 200 groups, are also deeply disturbed by the nomination. "It's not about Harriet Miers. It's about what Harriet Miers is not. She could be reliably conservative and it wouldn't matter: she's not the most qualified nominee the president could nominate," he says.

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Conservatives "close to the White House ... may be coming on board, but there's a serious disconnect between the grass tops and the grass roots," he adds.

"There is a sense among grass-roots conservatives that we fought too hard to settle for someone who is at best a stealth nominee, not on the record on core conservative issues," says Steve Elliott, president of grassfire.org, a conservative network based in Iowa that claims 1 million supporters on issues from banning abortion and low taxes to securing borders.

"We put a lot into the Bush presidency. He promised us someone like [Clarence] Thomas and [Antonin] Scalia. He backed away from what I think would have been a winnable fight," he adds.

But the sharpest darts against the nominee are coming from conservative and libertarian intellectuals, dismayed that Bush did not use the opportunity of this key vacancy to nominate a legal scholar like Reagan nominee Robert Bork, whose failed nomination in 1987 set off the court battles in the Senate.

In a headline that captured the gloom in many of the Capitol's conservative headquarters this week, William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, headlined his reaction to the Miers nomination: "Disappointed, Depressed and Demoralized." His choice of Miers reflects a combination of "cronyism and capitulation on the part of the president," he writes.

"The right is deeply split on this," says Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. "The choice is a reflection of Bush's weakness. He is squandering this opportunity on a nominee who has no record that remotely equips her for the Supreme Court."

What concerns the intellectuals isn't just how reliable a vote the nominee will be on a set of issues, including abortion. They want to see someone equipped to do battle over constitutional principles - effective enough to change the balance on the courts.

Many recall the promises of previous Republican presidents that nominees would be faithful to conservative ideals, but fell short. This time, they're looking for proof.

"This nomination turns on the question of trust. The division among conservative groups and individuals is between those willing to trust the president and take his word that Harriet Miers is at least acceptable to them - and maybe a little better than that - and those that are not," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron, in Ohio.

"Social conservatives are somewhat easier for the president to bring along, because what's important to them isn't constitutional principles, it's outcomes such as abortion or single-sex marriage," he adds.

In the run-up to this week's announcement, Mr. Weyrich says he and other conservative leaders were given a list of three potential nominees, including Miers, and asked whether they had anything against them. "Based on their records," he had objections for two on the list. But for Miers, "we didn't know anything about her. Nobody knew where she was coming from, so we couldn't tell them anything," he says.

That's why this week's outcry from conservatives over this nomination surprised the White House and its supporters, who had prepared talking points for an assault by the left.

"They've been trained by media consultants on how to deal with the left, but it's the right that's most disgusted with this nominee. They're having to adjust," says Mr. Miranda.

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