WASHINGTON – President Bush has reached a deep valley of his presidency, a place where even some of the ideological voices of his own party have abandoned him and his harshest critics are openly declaring a failed administration.

He has spent much of his tenure waging war with Democrats, relying on Republican-only majorities for victory. Now, with the withdrawal of the nomination of his longtime lawyer and ally, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court, Bush has lost a war from within.

For a president known for his strength and unshaken resolve, the loss marks an uncharacteristic moment of weakness and surrender.

For an administration characterized by discipline and order, looming threats of indictments from a grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA agent’s identity, if they materialize, could cause further disruption and disarray.

This is playing out against the backdrop of an increasingly unpopular war that has claimed more than 2,000 American lives and contributed to a steady decline in Bush’s popularity, with his job approval now hovering at its lowest levels.

But it’s not simply the slump in support that vexes his administration. Bush appears to be losing his base.

“What has come out of this episode is how really out-of-touch Mr. Bush is with the intellectual foundations of the movement that he purports to represent,” said Roger Pilon, director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Bush has betrayed a conservative agenda initiated by former President Ronald Reagan not only by offering the “embarrassing” nomination of Miers, Pilon said, but also by running up record budget deficits.

“It’s deeper than one mistake,” Pilon said. “There have been far too many mistakes.”

As the president presents a new nominee who is expected to appeal more to conservatives, however, Democrats are ready to pounce on Bush for bowing to the pressure of the right wing.

His political opponents smell blood.

“We are at a defining point in the Bush presidency, and all indications are that we are headed for a calamitous result and most likely failure,” said Doug Schoen, a Washington-based pollster who served former President Bill Clinton.

However, as a two-term president who has increased his party’s majorities in Congress and won legislative victories from tax cuts to education reform, Bush can plausibly claim he has already had a successful presidency.

And his staunchest backers insist he could still win a historic victory in a war against terror that he defined with great clarity in the weeks following the terrorist assaults of Sept. 11, 2001, when his approval ratings reached 90 percent.

“Long term, I think what the president has done is Mount Rushmore stuff,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, referring to the war against terrorism. “It’s big, it’s important and it’s right.”

Nevertheless, a convergence of crises in recent months – starting with the government’s sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, continuing with soaring oil prices and possibly culminating with charges from a grand jury whose term is set to expire Friday – has taken tolls on public perception of the president as well as Bush’s confidence in his own positions.

Bush, who adamantly insisted that his longtime friend, lawyer and White House counsel should get a fair hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is “deeply disappointed in the process” that led to her withdrawal, according to White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

The most distressing aspect of the Miers saga, for this Republican administration, is that some of the party’s ideological spokesmen objected to the nomination from the start, including such figures as magazine editor William Kristol who help shape conservative opinion.

Some of the most conservative Republicans in Congress, like Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Trent Lott of Mississippi, also bucked their president. The religious right, for its part, feared for Miers’ credentials on abortion.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said the revolt unleashed by the Miers nomination could be calmed with any one of several respectable conservative replacements, or worsened if Bush missteps again.

“The fact is that she was a catalyst that sort of ignited a whole bundle of frustrations that conservatives have had with the president and his administration,” Keene said.

“The flow of blood has been stanched” with Miers’ withdrawal, Keene said. “If he comes up with a winnable, conservative nominee, even if that person faces a fight in Congress, he will have drawn his people back to him.”

The loss of conservative support is part of a broader drop in Bush’s ratings. Bush’s overall approval, 42 percent in the latest Gallup Poll, reached a low of 39 percent in mid-October and has fallen below 40 in other surveys.

Four in 10 Americans think administration officials did something illegal in the CIA leak affair, with opinion sharply divided between Democrats and Republicans. But according to a Gallup survey on the question released Thursday, a plurality of Republicans – 44 percent-believe administration officials did something unethical in the matter.

An important question for the Bush presidency will be whether such attitudes result in significant Republican losses in the November 2006 congressional elections. If that happens, it could seal Bush’s lame duck status in resounding fashion.

The White House’s position could become even clearer on Friday, when word is expected from a grand jury probing who revealed the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame in July 2003.

In one sense, withdrawing Miers has cleared the decks for a White House desperately in need of reviving its agenda. That revival will begin with the imminent nomination of a new justice.

“There is an old rule in politics,” said Democratic consultant Steve McMahon. “If you know bad news is coming, try to get it all out in one day to try to shorten the news cycle.”


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