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Conservatives Confront Bush Aides
In interviews afterward, Gillespie and Mehlman acknowledged they faced skeptical questions but assured their usual allies that Miers would earn their respect. "People have questions," said Gillespie, who bore the brunt of the criticism at the Norquist meeting. "If you don't know Harriet and don't know her background, it's understandable that people have questions."
While much of the consternation was voiced by social conservatives, the White House has trumpeted the support of such prominent figures as James C. Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, and the National Right to Life Committee. And in the end, White House advisers emphasized, only the Senate gets a vote. "This is about getting senators, both Republicans and Democrats, to support her," said one administration ally working on the confirmation effort. "There's no real concern about Republican senators now."
The main complaints cited at the Norquist and Weyrich sessions yesterday, according to several accounts, centered on Miers's lack of track record and the charge of cronyism. "It was very tough and people were very unhappy," said one person who attended. Another said much of the anger resulted from the fact that "everyone prepared to go to the mat" to support a strong, controversial nominee and Miers was a letdown. As a result, a third attendee observed, Gillespie and Mehlman came in for rough treatment: "They got pummeled. I've never seen anything like it."
The 90-minute Norquist session, where Gillespie appeared before 100 activists, was the more fiery encounter, according to participants. Among those speaking out was Jessica Echard, executive director of the Eagle Forum, founded by Phyllis Schlafly. Although she declined to give a full account later because of the meeting ground rules, Echard said in an interview that her group could not for now support Miers: "We feel this is a disappointment in President Bush. If it's going to be a woman, we expected an equal heavyweight to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her liberal stance, and we did not get that in Miss Miers."
Another conservative captured the mood, according to a witness, by scorning Miers. "She's the president's nominee," he said. "She's not ours."
At Weyrich's two-hour luncheon featuring Mehlman and Goeglein addressing 85 activists, the host opened the discussion by rejecting Bush's call to trust him. "I told Mehlman that I had had five 'trust-mes' in my long history here . . . and I said, 'I'm sorry, but the president saying he knows her heart is insufficient," Weyrich said, referring to Republican court appointments that resulted in disappointment for conservatives.
In a later interview, Mehlman said he retorted that Bush's decade-long friendship with Miers set this nomination apart: "What's different about this trust-me moment as opposed to the other ones is this president's knowledge of this nominee."
Staff writer Thomas B. Edsall contributed to this report.