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Conservatives fear increase of dissent in the ranks

Some say divisions could weaken party

WASHINGTON -- Conservative leader Paul M. Weyrich says membership rolls and donations to groups on the right have fallen off. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich worries that the reformist movement he helped godfather has been hurt by corruption allegations surrounding some of its leaders.

The chairman of the American Conservative Union, David Keene, normally a White House loyalist, proclaims that activists are fed up with President Bush. And among conservative books in the works are these sour titles: ''Can This Party Be Saved?" and ''Imposter: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy."

The conservative movement that reshaped modern American politics is in its deepest funk since 1992, when the right rejected Bush's father and was blamed for Republican losses. After displaying unprecedented unity last year, a range of leaders -- from antitax activists to the religious right -- now say they distrust the White House and worry that internal divisions could sap the movement's strength.

The conservative movement was ''on an upward path, even after the 2004 elections, but the growth has stopped," said Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation.

''People now say, 'I'm not sure that this is the right gang to belong to,' " Weyrich, who runs a weekly strategy session, said last week. That ''gang" is the White House and GOP leadership, both of which rely on a loyal cadre of self-described conservatives to win elections. A disgruntled base that stays home on election day could fuel Democratic gains in Congress.

''The persuasion part of winning elections is over," said GOP pollster Alexander P. Gage. ''It's all about mobilization."

Some analysts say disenchantment on the right could double the number of House seats considered competitive from 40 to 80.

Much attention has focused on conservative dissent over Bush's choice of Harriet E. Miers as his second Supreme Court nominee, with critics on the right arguing that she lacks the stature to reshape the court on critical constitutional questions.

But conservative leaders say Miers was merely the last straw in a series of disappointments with Bush that have divided their ranks.

Fiscal conservatives date their distress with Bush to his first term, when he increased education spending and added a Medicare prescription drug plan. Social conservatives complain about White House resistance to pushing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

And looming over all this is the hot-button issue of immigration. ''I know of no issue more divisive among Republicans," said veteran GOP strategist Edward J. Rollins. Many activists accuse Bush of failing to enforce borders, and condemn his proposal for a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants.

The Miers nomination lit a fuse to these disputes because conservatives put a premium on changing a court system that they believe has been trending liberal for decades.

''As chair of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee [in 2004], I'd go all over the country," said Senator George Allen of Virginia, a likely 2008 presidential candidate. '' I'd say we're for less taxation, less regulation, greater energy independence. But I'd always finish with judges -- and they would stand up and cheer. This was the motivating issue."

White House officials downplayed the conservative dissent. On issues from terrorism to spending cuts ''this president has continued to show leadership," said Nicolle Devenish, the White House communications director.

The conservative movement has been rattled by corruption allegations against congressional leaders -- Senate majority leader Bill Frist, the target of an insider trading investigation, and Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, indicted on campaign spending charges.

Moreover, investigations into the dealings of lobbyist Jack Abramoff have tarnished the reputations of conservative leaders Ralph Reed, who built the Christian Coalition into an electoral powerhouse, and Grover Norquist, who turned tax-cutting into a trademark GOP priority as president of Americans for Tax Reform.

''It takes the energy out of the system, particularly if you are the party of reform," Gingrich, who was a mentor to both activists, said of the investigations.

To be sure, the conservative movement is far stronger than in the early 1990s, with a vast network of think tanks, grass-roots machines and talk radio outlets. And commentators believe the debate over Miers reveals the movement's strength.

''This is no 'crackup,' " Rush Limbaugh wrote in the Wall Street Journal. ''It's a crackdown. We conservatives are unified in our objectives."

Still, among leading thinkers in the movement there is suddenly talk that conservatives might have been corrupted by the power they fought so hard to attain.

''To a real degree, the Republican Party has become a party of governance, not of reform," said Gingrich, a 2008 presidential prospect.

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