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Conservatives ask: Is Bush still one of us?

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But pundits can also be the canary in the coal mine. When Bush nominated his counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, conservative columnists raised doubts about her reliability on key issues. Her nomination was withdrawn.

Richard Viguerie, the direct-mail guru who helped fuel the Reagan revolution of 1980, asserts that Bush's inconsistency as a conservative has alarmed many of the most active members of the party - the donors, fundraisers, and grass-roots activists who drive turnout on election day. A recent online poll by Mr. Viguerie of more than 1,000 conservative activists found that 67 percent say Bush is not governing as a conservative, and 64 percent give him a D or an F on government spending.

Even though Bush won't be on the ballot, conservative disappointment in him could hurt the Republican Party in this November's midterm elections, he says.

"The party has been hijacked by big-government Republicans," says Viguerie, hinting that it might be good for the party to lose congressional power later this year. "The importance of losing elections is greatly underrated," he adds. "There's not any way Ronald Reagan would have been elected in 1980 if [Gerald] Ford had been elected in '76."

Among conservative columnists, perhaps one of the president's staunchest admirers is Fred Barnes, editor of the Weekly Standard. In his new book, "Rebel-in-Chief," he delves into the tricky terrain of defining Bush's philosophy as president. "Big-government Republican" doesn't capture Bush, he suggests, nor do comparisons to recent presidents.

"His strategy is to use government as a means to achieve conservative ends," Mr. Barnes writes. Thus, instead of trying to abolish the Department of Education, the Reagan-era position, Bush has sought to achieve the conservative goal of accountability in public education by requiring testing and then sanctions for schools that fail to meet standards.

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