- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2002

Democrats are stepping up attacks on President Bush in the belief that growing criticism from his conservative base over his handling of the conflict in the Middle East and his domestic policies has begun to weaken him politically.
"The Republicans have been calling any legitimate policy difference unpatriotic, and you can't do that when the incoming artillery is coming from your right flank, and that includes the Middle East," said Erik Smith, chief spokesman for House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.
In recent weeks, conservative commentators, activists and some Republican leaders have questioned certain moves by the president from trade tariffs on steel to amnesty for illegal immigrants and said he must take a harder line against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"Some conservatives agree that Mr. Bush is losing his edge," syndicated columnist Cal Thomas wrote yesterday. "They believe it's because he no longer speaks with the moral certainty that has driven his approval ratings to near universal acclaim. They're right to be concerned."
Other commentators have called Mr. Bush's Middle East policy confused and contradictory and have criticized him for pressuring Israel to abandon its offensive against suspected terrorist hide-outs in the West Bank.
Columnist Robert Novak described the president's remarks on the conflict as "far off from a rational U.S. strategy." Columnist George Will said Mr. Bush has lost his "moral clarity."
Democrats believe such criticism from Mr. Bush's conservative base has not only revealed a chink in his armor but presented an opportunity to attack more aggressively his foreign and domestic policies without seeming unpatriotic amid the war on terrorism.
"There is clearly dissension within Republican ranks, and one of the things that has done is to rob the Republican Party of their ability to stifle any Democratic dissent," Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Bush's pollster, Matthew Dowd, rejected any suggestion that the president is losing support among his conservative political base.
"I know you have a number of pundits and commentators speculating that Bush has taken a wrong turn, but they are certainly not speaking for Republicans out there beyond the Beltway," he said.
Democratic strategists for Mr. Gephardt pointed to "the growing political divisions" between House Republican leaders and the Bush White House in a recent memorandum to House Democratic leaders and party activists.
"Democrats will continue to look for opportunities to exploit these differences," the memo said.
House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas addressed the situation in the Middle East during a major foreign policy speech, saying the administration should abandon "the idea that the United States should somehow be a disinterested party mediating between two good-natured nations earnestly striving for peace."
Meanwhile, heading a long lineup of potential Democratic presidential candidates at a party meeting last weekend in Orlando, Fla., Al Gore leveled a fierce assault on the president that party officials said was the official kickoff of a new political offensive.
"America's economy is suffering unnecessarily. Important American values are being trampled. Special interests are calling the shots," Mr. Gore said.
Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said, "With the unrest abroad, economic troubles and now with members of his own party criticizing him, Bush is experiencing what Bill Clinton did in his own first two years in the White House.
"So now he has to wage four fights, one abroad, one at home, one with his own party and one with the Democrats."
Mr. Dowd said the president's job-approval rating has not faltered during the past several weeks. "It's still in the mid- to high 90s among Republicans and conservative voters, and that number has not changed since September," Mr. Dowd said.
When a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, conducted April 5-7, asked 1,009 adults, "Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling the situation in the Middle East?" 67 percent said they approved, and 27 percent disapproved.

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