Thursday, January 22, 2004

President Bush is in trouble with his conservative voting base over immigration, excessive spending by the Republican majority in Congress, and the expansion of government that his initiatives are producing, said Republican lawmakers, party leaders and activists yesterday.

But they strongly support Mr. Bush on four issues they consider crucial: a strong national defense, homeland security, the war on terrorism and cutting taxes.

“Conservatives know that if you reject principles of limited government and urge others to reject them, you can be my ally, you can be my friend — but you cannot call yourself a conservative,” Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, told political activists at the annual, three-day Conservative Political Action Conference in Arlington.

Mr. Pence cited as major blows to limited government the 2001 enactment of No Child Left Behind, which he called the largest expansion of the Department of Education since President Carter created it, and the passage last year of the $400 billion Medicare prescription-drug bill, the largest new entitlement since 1965.

In interviews and speeches, lawmakers and rank-and-file activists said they believe Mr. Bush is a conservative but is heeding advisers who want him to chase votes in the political center and even left of center, including Hispanic votes.

“If he believes he needs passionate supporters to really work to get out the vote, especially in the Northeast, then he needs to persuade them he is going back to Reagan principles,” said Terry Strine, chairman of the Delaware Republican Party.

“If he doesn’t, he risks not getting re-elected, but that will also depend on who the Democrats nominate,” Mr. Strine said while waiting for Vice President Dick Cheney to address the conference on its first day.

Conservative lawmakers repeatedly identified as a major mistake Mr. Bush’s recent call for a new guest-worker program, which could mean the legalization of millions of illegal aliens in the United States and is viewed as amnesty.

“Immigration and other issues have aggravated the division between conservatives in Congress and the administration,” said Rep. Zach Wamp, Tennessee Republican.

“Homeland security, national security and tax cuts all help with the president’s base, but rewarding illegal immigrants runs counter to conservative principles,” he said.

Although this year’s CPAC audience is critical of the president and the Republican Congress on some issues, it is not in full rebellion, like audiences at past CPACs.

In 1972, CPAC activists were in revolt over the liberalism of President Nixon and spawned a movement to run Sen. John Ashbrook against him for the Republican nomination. In 1976, a majority at the CPAC supported Ronald Reagan over President Ford, another Republican liberal. And in 1992, CPAC activists supported conservative stalwart Pat Buchanan over the first President Bush.

But for some veteran conservatives, the president is in more trouble with his core supporters than he may realize.

“He has alienated his conservative base,” said former Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican. “By pursing the same policies he is now, he nearly lost the 2000 election — by blurring distinctions between Republicans, the conservative party, and Democrats, the liberal party.”

Rep. John Shadegg, Arizona Republican, Mr. Bush’s State of the Union address Monday failed to ease the concerns of his base.

“He talked about excessively high spending in recent years, but I am not certain his saying he is going to hold spending growth to under 4 percent this year is making conservatives say, ‘Aha, great’” Mr. Shadegg said.

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