WASHINGTON – When an influential group of conservatives gathers in downtown Washington each week, they often get a political pep talk from a senior Bush administration official or campaign aide. They don't expect a fellow Republican to deliver a blistering critique of President Bush's handling of the Iraq war.
But nearly 150 conservatives listened in silence recently as a veteran of the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations ticked off a litany of missteps in Iraq by the Bush White House.
"This war is not going well," said Stefan Halper (search), a deputy assistant secretary of state under President Reagan.
"It's costing us a lot of money, isolating us from our allies and friends," said Halper, who gave $1,000 to George W. Bush's campaign and more than $83,000 to other GOP causes in 2000. "This is not the cakewalk the neoconservatives predicted. We were not greeted with flowers in the streets."
Conservatives, the backbone of Bush's political base, are increasingly uneasy about the Iraq conflict and the steady drumbeat of violence in postwar Iraq, Halper and some of his fellow Republicans say. The conservatives' anxiety was fueled by the Abu Ghraib (search) prisoner-abuse scandal and has not abated with the transfer of political power to the interim Iraqi government.
Some Republicans fear angry conservatives will stay home in November, undercutting Bush's re-election bid.
"I don't think there's any question that there is growing restiveness in the Republican base about this war," said Halper, the co-author of a new book, "America Alone: The Neoconservatives and the Global Order."
Some Republicans dismiss the rift as little more than an inside-the-Beltway spat among rival factions of the GOP intelligentsia. Indeed, conservatives nationwide are still firmly behind Bush. A Pew Research Center poll last month found that 97 percent of conservative Republicans favored Bush over Kerry.
But anger is simmering among some conservatives.
"I am bitterly disappointed in his actions with this war. It is a total travesty," said Tom Hutchinson, 69, a self-described conservative from Sturgeon, Mo., who posted yard signs and staffed campaign phone banks for the Republican in 2000. Hutchinson said he did not believe the administration's stated rationales for the war, in particular the argument that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Hutchinson, a retired businessman and former college professor, said his unease with Iraq may lead him to do something he has not done since 1956: avoid the voting booth in a presidential election.
Jack Walters, 59, a self-described "classical conservative" from Columbia, Mo., said he hadn't decided which candidate to vote for.
"Having been through Vietnam, I thought no, never again," Walters said. "But here comes the same thing again, and I'm old enough to recognize the lame reasons given for going into Iraq, and they made me ill."
The tension has been building in official Washington, where conservative members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees have pressed the administration for answers on combat operations; disagreed with the Pentagon on troop levels; and expressed frustration with an administration they feel has shown them disdain by withholding information.
Chief political adviser Karl Rove's formula for re-election is primarily to push Bush's conservative base to the polls.
Another administration official involved in Bush's re-election effort has voiced concern that angry conservatives will sit out the election.
But Matthew Dowd, the Bush-Cheney campaign's chief strategist, described the fear of losing conservative support as "just ludicrous."
Bush is "as strong among conservative Republicans as any Republican president has been" — higher than President Reagan's approval among conservatives during his re-election campaign of 1984, Dowd said.
Yet, Halper said his critical review on the administration's performance on Iraq last week was met with expressions of support in the conservatives' weekly meeting, which is closed to journalists.
The marquee speaker sent by the administration was Eric Ciliberti, who spent several weeks in Iraq this year and told the audience of broad progress being made there.
Ciliberti complained to the group that those in the news media were not reporting the positive developments out of Iraq. Ciliberti did not return several calls late in the past week from a reporter seeking his account.