The nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court has splintered President Bush's base and triggered a growing demand from his own supporters to withdraw her nomination.
"What a stupid, stupid mistake," said Mark W. Smith, a member of the conservative Federalist Society who has actively supported Mr. Bush but wants to see the nomination withdrawn. "You cannot fix this for 25 years."
Conservatives have stuck with Mr. Bush through the bloodiest and gloomiest days of the war in Iraq, held firm as administration officials are investigated for revealing a CIA operative's identity and given him a pass on the galloping federal spending. But blowing the historic opportunity to replace a swing vote on the Supreme Court is unforgivable, conservatives say.
"An awful lot of people hung in on the administration's coalition despite being troubled by the prolific spending, the war and everything else," said Paul W. Weyrich, a leader in the conservative movement. "The one thing they were certain of was that Bush would give us outstanding jurists."
Many conservative columnists and commentators -- including Peggy Noonan, the Reagan speechwriter who worked on Mr. Bush's re-election campaign -- have called on Mr. Bush to rescind Miss Miers' nomination.
Asked yesterday whether Miss Miers would request to have her nomination withdrawn, White House spokesman Scott McClellan responded, "No one that knows her would make such a suggestion, and no one that knows her record and her qualifications would make such a suggestion."
The fissure has separated the White House from some of Mr. Bush's most loyal Republicans in the Senate. Several -- including Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and George Allen of Virginia -- have publicly questioned whether Miss Miers was the right pick.
Leonard A. Leo, who took a leave from the Federalist Society to help the White House get nominees confirmed, said he finds the criticism from Congress odd.
"To the extent that there is a problem here, a good portion of it dates back to the spring when Senate leadership failed -- failed -- to achieve filibuster reform," he said. "That was the decisive moment in this fight."
Many conservatives wanted Senate Republicans to push through a ban on judicial filibusters earlier this year.
Instead, a renegade group of 14 senators -- seven Democrats and seven Republicans -- signed a last-minute deal to avoid what had come to be known as the "nuclear option" for its propensity to create caustic fallout in the chamber.
"I find it highly ironic that many of the same conservatives criticizing the president's nominee were nowhere to be found when it came time to pull the trigger on filibuster reform," said Mr. Leo, adding that he wholeheartedly supports the Miers nomination. "If I'm the president, I wouldn't have a high level of confidence that my boys in the Senate can get the job done."
The dissension has been particularly visible within the Federalist Society, a group of conservative lawyers that has provided many of the jurists who Mr. Bush has picked for the federal bench.
"I have found very few people who are pleased at all," said Mr. Smith, who is vice president of the New York City chapter and author of "The Official Handbook of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy." "The mood ranges from anger to depression."
Conservative jurists have waited decades for an opportunity to reverse what they see as a leftward trend of the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court. Much of the problem, they said, has been caused by Republican presidents who nominate people such as Miss Miers who aren't verifiably conservative jurists.
"There is a big difference between a political conservative and a judicial conservative," Mr. Weyrich said. "If she doesn't have a deep-governing judicial philosophy, she will get sucked into this whole system that puts pressure on members of the Supreme Court."
Without that core judicial foundation, he said, she ultimately will become unmoored and lose her way.
Conservatives say they have been ready for years to fight -- and win -- this battle.
"If we're ever going to fight this fight, it's got to be now," Mr. Smith said. "So, why are we going to pre-emptively surrender? We're in the majority, so why don't we act like it?"
Miss Miers' record is so thin that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, said she needs "a crash course in constitutional law."
"That's like saying you need to bone up on your baseball techniques because we're putting you on the New York Yankees next week," Mr. Smith said.
Many conservatives also have been shocked by the administration's handling of the negative reaction from its longtime and ardent supporters. They have been called "elitist" and "sexist," and some Republican Senate Judiciary Committee staff lawyers say White House officials have stopped communicating with them.
They also have gone to great pains to tout Miss Miers as an evangelical Christian in an apparent effort to shore up that bloc of voters. The tactic is insulting, say conservatives -- especially conservative jurists who think religion and personal views have no place in the debate.
Anyway, Mr. Smith said, "Jimmy Carter was an evangelical Christian from Georgia, and what did that do for us?"