Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, met with a group of cranky conservative activists in the White House last week to remind them why Bush deserves their support.

Among other things, Rove and presidential counsel Harriet Miers told the conservative leaders that the president will be nominating another 20 conservative judges who would be issuing court rulings for decades to come.

It was a sobering reminder to these hardcore conservatives, who have become sharply critical of Bush's presidency, of the sweeping and long-lasting ideological changes on the federal bench that he has achieved in the past six years.

That Rove even had to make the case for what will be called the Bush court long after he leaves office spoke volumes about how much trouble the president was having with his once-faithful political base. An Associated Press poll reported last week that the president's once sky-high approval rating among conservatives had dropped to 52 percent.

The meeting was further proof, if any was needed, that the White House has neglected one of its most critical political survival tasks: the constant care and feeding of its conservative base. Ignore them and no matter what you have done, you risk losing their full support when you need them.

It's widely recognized by now that giving Rove a larger, policy-making portfolio in the second term sapped the time he could devote to his true calling: political strategizing and preparing for the 2006 midterm elections.

This is not to say that the architect of Bush's political revolution wasn't in the battle. Many of the political challengers in key House and Senate races are running now because Rove helped recruit them. But this is not just a full-time job: It is the toughest election challenge of Rove's White House career.

He knows the challenge he faces now is largely due to eroding support in the party's conservative ground forces. That's why last week's meeting was one of many sessions that are planned in the days to come: to listen to conservative complaints, mend fences, re-establish old alliances and, as Rove and Miers did last week, remind them what Bush has done for the country, for his party and for conservatives.

It starts with the Bush tax cuts, ultimately $1.7 trillion in across-the-board tax reductions that has fueled one of the greatest economic recoveries in U.S. history. As this is written, Congress is in the process of extending $70 billion in tax cuts on capital gains, stock dividends and the Alternative Minimum tax until 2010 to keep the recovery going.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.