WACO, Tex., March 26 -- He flew halfway across the country in a vain effort to save her life, but in the week since, President Bush has retreated back to his ranch and remained largely out of sight as the nation wrestled with the great moral issues surrounding the fate of Terri Schiavo.
The president has said nothing publicly about the bitterly contested case since Wednesday, when reporters asked about it and he said he had exhausted his powers to intervene. On Saturday, as he used his weekly radio address to express condolences to the victims of a school shooting in Minnesota and extol a "culture that affirms life," he did not mention the most prominent culture-of-life issue in the public eye.
The juxtaposition of racing through the night in Air Force One to sign legislation intended to force doctors to reinsert Schiavo's feeding tube and choosing not to use his bully pulpit to advocate for her life afterward demonstrates how uncomfortable the matter has become for the White House. For years, Bush has succeeded politically in stitching together the disparate elements of the conservative movement, marrying the libertarian and family-values wings of his party. Now he faces a major Republican rupture.
Polls show the vast majority of Americans, including conservatives and evangelical Christians, disapprove of the decision by Bush and Congress to get involved in the Schiavo matter. And more worrying for the White House, those polls have also shown a significant drop in Bush's overall approval ratings.
"It's been a very sticky issue for the president," said Stephen Moore, a Bush ally and president of the Free Enterprise Fund, which promotes limited government. "I think no matter what course he took, he was going to come under criticism. I personally believe Bush would have been better off not intervening at all."
The case came at a time when Bush was struggling to sell his plan to overhaul Social Security. "This is the second bad thing to happen to him this year, Social Security being the first," said Andrew Kohut, executive director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "We've had a week that I don't think they can count on advancing their agenda."
But presidential advisers shrug off the latest poll numbers. "I believe . . . the president's recent favorable ratings and Schiavo case [are] probably entirely disconnected," Mark McKinnon, a Bush political strategist, said in an e-mail message. The slipping approval numbers were "more due to rising gas prices, rising interest rates and some recent economic uncertainty." As for Schiavo, McKinnon said he thinks "most people recognize [the] president's efforts as appropriate and simply motivated to save a life."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that even though Bush has not commented on the Schiavo cast in recent days, he has been receiving "regular updates from his staff" and "is saddened by this extraordinary case." She added, "President Bush supports all those who stand up to defend life."
Bush's approval rating fell from 52 percent to 45 percent in a week's time, according to a survey by USA Today, CNN and the Gallup organization, its lowest level ever in that poll. The biggest drop in support, the poll found, was among men, conservatives and churchgoers. A CBS News poll similarly found that Bush's favorable rating had dropped by six percentage points since February, to 43 percent.
During the time those polls were being conducted, the Schiavo case dominated television news. But a Newsweek poll taken a week earlier, before the dispute over Schiavo was being featured so prominently in the news, also showed a five-point drop, to 45 percent, for Bush.
Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist, said the party was a victim of its own success in persuading the public over the last decade that the federal government should play a less intrusive role in American life. Luntz said Congress would suffer more sustained damage because lawmakers were more visible in the matter.
But just as importantly, he said, the issue has chipped away at the political coalition on which Bush has relied. "No matter how you look at the polls, it has opened up an ideological fault within the GOP," Luntz said. "That's why some people in Washington were so shocked when the first poll numbers came back."
White House strategists believe that even if only a small fraction of the country supports intervention in the Schiavo case, they tend to be more passionate and will be more likely to vote on the issue, as opposed to the broad masses that disapprove. Still, some conservatives have expressed disappointment that Bush has not done more. Michael Savage, a conservative radio talk show host, has castigated the president on the air, and two-thirds of 21,000 respondents to a survey on his Web site said Bush should "send in federal marshals to save Terri."
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, an advocacy group, said he doubted Bush would suffer lasting damage among social conservatives for not doing more. But he added that the issue would reverberate in Washington long after Schiavo dies, reemerging as a new twist in the divisive Senate battle over Bush judicial nominations, given the anger at judges who declined to intervene after Congress and Bush enacted legislation throwing the case into federal court.
"This began as a dispute between Terri's parents and Michael Schiavo, but I think the lasting dispute is going to be between the branches of government," Perkins said. "This will add to the discussion about how the judges are out of control."