WASHINGTON -- President Bush bolstered his "compassionate" credentials among moderates with his proposal to offer millions of undocumented workers guest worker cards. But even as supporters were cheering the president's announcement from the East Room on Wednesday, angry calls were already pouring into the office of US Representative Elton Gallegly, a conservative Republican from the heart of Bush country.
Gallegly's Los Angeles-area district gave the president 54 percent of its votes in 2000. But this week it gave Gallegly's staff an earful: Illegal immigrants should be deported, not employed.
"My phone was ringing off the hook [with people saying], `We don't want to change the name on the US Capitol to the Mexican Department of Social Services,' " Gallegly said.
The immigration proposal is the latest in a series of Bush policies that have angered parts of the president's conservative political base. Fiscal conservatives are furious about surging federal spending. Libertarians complain about the long reach of the Patriot Act. Military advocates fear that the Pentagon will prematurely pull troops out of Iraq.
As the 2004 presidential campaign year officially kicks off, all this raises the critical question of whether Bush can keep the base of his party excited -- a factor his own strategist has called the key to his reelection. Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, has often fretted about the millions of evangelical Christians who sat out the 2000 election, perhaps turned off by his decision to emphasize the "compassionate" side of his agenda over the conservative one.
Political analysts say issues such as the president's immigration policy and escalating federal spending are festering in some conservative minds -- and could seriously hurt Bush if, taken together, they erode turnout among key conservative blocs on Election Day.
"They're not going to vote Democratic," said Karlyn H. Bowman, a polling specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. "Staying home in a close election is what the Republicans would be worried about."
Right now, polls indicate that more than 90 percent of people who identify themselves as conservative back Bush. The president's conservative base has been firmed up by patriotic identification with the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the cuts in income-tax rates, and Bush's embrace of some key aspects of the evangelical Christian social agenda, including enacting a ban on the procedure conservatives call "partial-birth" abortion.
Many conservatives say Bush has done a good enough job responding to their key positions that it would take more than a few variances for him to lose the support of his base.
Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, said of immigration, "It's not a vote-moving issue for any bloc of the center-right coalition. People vote on guns. They vote on taxes. They vote on being prolife."
But others disagree, noting that immigration is a passionate issue in many parts of the country. Former California governor Pete Wilson, who in the 1990s was thought by some to be a strong presidential candidate, supported a ballot initiative that would have blocked illegal immigrants from getting benefits in California. A solid majority of voters in the state supported the measure, but many perceived Wilson's push for it to be tinged with racism. Democrats rode the backlash into statewide offices.
Bush is acutely aware of Wilson's fate and of the growing power of Latino voters, advisers say, which helped motivate him to support a reform that many conservatives consider tantamount to rewarding illegal behavior.
On the other hand, the president is also aware of what happened to his father, George H. W. Bush, who lost conservative support after breaking a pledge not to raise taxes and was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992.
Conservatives reevaluated the first President Bush after he broke that pledge against raising taxes and found him wanting.
The current President Bush's immigration proposal could prompt a similar reevaluation if combined with other issues, said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies.
The high cost of Iraq, analysts said, is one potential danger spot for this president: Conservatives supported the military action, but have a small appetite for nation building. A devastating accident or military setback could make conservatives question their allegiance to Bush.
Gallegly, for one, said the president's immigration proposal could hurt him not only among conservatives but also with blue-collar "Reagan Democrats," who might feel threatened by having millions of guest workers in the labor force.
Still, Bush's speech on immigration left him lots of room for adjustments to his proposal. Gallegly predicted that Congress will work with the White House to change the plan and that conservatives will not need to take a second look at the man they have supported all along.
All they will have to do, he said, is take a first look at who is running against him.
"I doubt that you're going to find that conservatives believe they have a safe harbor with any of the Democrats," Gallegly said.