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.

On social issues, there is very little on the pro-life agenda that Bush has not advanced, leading to the ban on partial-birth abortions. Congress will soon vote on a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage. His support among social conservatives seems secure.

Conservatives are very much in Bush's corner on national security and the war on terrorism, and recent polls by CBS News showed that voters still trusted Bush more than the Democrats to deal with these two issues.

Perhaps the biggest complaint by far that conservatives have with the president has to do with overspending. He has never vetoed a budget bill, though there have been many that he signed that were stuffed with pork and needlessly wasted tens of billions of dollars.

The massive entitlement expansion built into Bush's prescription-drug benefits program, the largest spending increase in Medicare's history, plus record appropriations for the Department of Education and other federal bureaucracies, has only intensified conservative angst over the GOP's spending binge.

The spectacle of the Republican Senate voting to preserve ridiculous boondoggles like Mississippi's $700 million "railroad to nowhere" as part of a CSX freight line relocation plan reignited conservative anger that has worsened Bush's grassroots erosion.

If Rove and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten want to turn things around for Bush on this issue, they should find a spending bill he can veto, laying down the line that the day of endless pork-barrel projects must stop.

Unfortunately, it won't be the pending $106 billion emergency defense spending bill that has been larded with pork and includes the rail funding -- the largest single earmark ever. Vetoing a defense bill that will be critical to success in Iraq and the war on terrorism would be a political disaster.

But there will be other spending bills this year that he can veto that will send a very welcome sign to the party's troops that the GOP still stands for smaller, leaner government; and that the president means what he says when he tells Congress to cut spending.

If Republican lawmakers were to uphold Bush's veto, it would energize and reassure the GOP's base that their party still stands for limited, frugal government and that they've heard their complaints. How about it, Mr. President? Copyright 2006, United Feature Syndicate, Inc. END DONALD LAMBRO 5-15-06 Monday, May 15, 2006 United Feature Syndicate DONALD LAMBRO 1 of 2

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.