Conservatives Downplay Rifts With President

News of cracks in President Bush’s loyal party base are being downplayed by Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, while pollsters say Bush is retaining the trust and support of conservatives outside the Beltway.

"[Republicans] like him, they trust him and they think he’s going to do the right thing," said Washington-based pollster Dave Winston. "That doesn’t mean they agree with him 100 percent of the time. Are there going to be differences? Of course there are."

Pundits have speculated that in recent weeks differences among Republicans over administration policies have become more severe and perhaps more fundamental, particularly regarding the War on Terror (search).

Despite a visit by Bush to Capitol Hill just before the Memorial Day break — a trip designed as a sort of pep rally to strengthen party resolve for the war — some analysts say the president needs to come up with ways to stem the bad news coming from Iraq.

"It appears to me that in the conservative establishment there are real worries, not just about the way things are going, but about why we are there and what we are doing now that we are there," said John Sample, senior fellow from the Cato Institute (search).

Rep. John Duncan, Tenn., is one of the half-dozen House Republicans who voted against authorizing the president to go into Iraq (search) in 2002. He said he still believes the United States should not have preemptively invaded that country, and is not as alone in that sentiment as he was before the war.

"A few members have mentioned to him privately that they might have done things differently now," said spokesman Matt Lehigh.

Lehigh said despite the difference of opinion, Duncan remains a loyal supporter of Bush. "He believes he is the proper man for the presidency," he said.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y, told that the bad news of the last several weeks, which seems to be abating now, made members squeamish. He said he wished more GOP members were willing to talk to the press in defense of the president's plan for Iraq.

"There is almost no one who is opposed to the reasons why we are there, just a number of members who are nervous — they want it to get better," King said, adding that Bush’s visit to Capitol Hill helped, and another stop there would do the party even more good. "It’s too bad he has to do it, but he’s going to have to."

Since the president's visit to the Hill, an interim Iraqi government has been appointed and the transfer of government authority on June 30 has become more tangible. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri said he believes any tensions that might have existed will be assuaged.

"I think the president has gotten high marks in the last couple of weeks for now he’s working on accomplishing the transition to self-government," Blunt told

Even with intentions for Iraq appearing to come to fruition, Bush still must work to win over Republican critics on the Hill on other matters.

Republicans have been engaging in heightened in-fighting over fiscal policy — many conservatives believe Bush has been too spend-happy in the last four years. Some moderate Republicans, particularly in the Senate, have called into question whether the country can afford making Bush’s tax cuts permanent, a staple in the conservative platform.

These tensions rose to the surface late last month when House Speaker Dennis Hastert questioned Sen. John McCain’s Republican credentials because the Arizona lawmaker warned against tax cuts during wartime. The White House steered clear of the dispute.

"There are going to be some tensions, but that’s part of the process," said Hastert spokesman John Feehery, who added that despite the verbal exchange, the two men "have a very good working relationship."

Meanwhile, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (search), announced he would be holding hearings on the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, much to the chagrin of Republicans in the House, who suggested that further hearings would politicize the issue.

"I think the Senate has become mesmerized by cameras and I think that’s sad," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services.

Hunter's complaint aside, conservative writers like George Will and Robert Novak called into question the broader vision of the war in Iraq, with Novak calling for more accountability in the prison scandal.

In early May, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee (search), also suggested it is "time for some hard headed assessment of American interests" where the war is concerned.

"It seems to me that in fighting the global war against terrorism, we need to restrain what are growing U.S messianic interests – a sort of global social engineering where the United States feels it is both entitled and obligated to promote democracy – by force if necessary," he said in a May 3 speech at Kansas State University.

Roberts’ warning, read in tandem with other conservative complaints about the direction of the war, was not lost on political observers, who said the senator's views indicate a wider concern among conservative backers of the president.

"He’s not known for being particularly moderate or middle-of-the-road," said Cato's Sample.

"The real question is whether any of that, and the griping about fiscal policy, has any real effect beyond Capitol Hill, and that’s an important question I don’t have an answer to," he added.

Republican pollsters say so far, the numbers among Republican voters don’t send up any red flags for Bush's supporter. An Annenberg Public Policy Center (search) survey conducted between May 17 and 23 showed GOP support for the president was strong, with an 85 percent favorable rating.

While Republican lawmakers’ approval ratings as a group generally go down when the president’s numbers go down, Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group said he does not foresee any chiseling away of the conservative base, on or off the Hill.

"There is certainly hand-wringing when there is bad news in Iraq," he said. "But in reality you have a very loyal Republican base for Bush — a more loyal party than I have seen in recent memory."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.