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Pundits Renounce The President

Thomas L. Friedman, a New York Times columnist who is not a conservative but has strongly backed the Iraq war, reversed course this month, writing that " 'staying the course' is pointless, and it's time to start thinking about Plan B -- how we might disengage with the least damage possible."

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the second-guessing was predictable, given the difficulties in Iraq. "It's hardly unusual in times of war that people get anxious, and that would include people who have supported the president," he said. "The president understands that and is not fazed by it."

Snow said much of the frustration articulated by conservatives stems from a desire to accomplish Bush's ambitions. "The good thing is they all have the same goal: They all want to win the war on terror," he said. "You don't have people quibbling over the goals; they're quibbling over the means -- or 'quibbling' is the wrong word. 'Debating.' "

Snow, who hosted a Fox radio talk show before joining the White House this spring, has made an effort to reach out to conservative audiences by appearing on his former competitors' programs, including shows hosted by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. "We're certainly more engaged on that front," he said.

And some of the president's neoconservative supporters have fired back on his behalf. Norman Podhoretz, editor-at-large of Commentary magazine, wrote an 11,525-word essay this month rebutting not only Will, Buckley and other traditional conservatives but also fellow neoconservatives who "have now taken to composing obituary notices of their own." He noted that he had been a tough critic of Reagan for betraying conservative values, only to later conclude that Reagan's approach served "an overall strategy that in the end succeeded in attaining its great objective."

Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard and a reliable Bush supporter, said the disillusionment is not surprising. "People get weary, especially when they expected a war to be over very quickly," he said in an interview. "Supporters fall off over time. I've been disappointed by some of the people who have fallen off, like George Will, but that's what happens."

Few have struck a nerve more than Scarborough, who questioned the president's intelligence on his show, "Scarborough Country." He showed a montage of clips of Bush's famously inarticulate verbal miscues and then explored with guests John Fund and Lawrence O'Donnell Jr. whether Bush is smart enough to be president.

While the country does not want a leader wallowing in the weeds, Scarborough concluded on the segment, "we do need a president who, I think, is intellectually curious."

"And that is a big question," Scarborough said, "whether George W. Bush has the intellectual curiousness -- if that's a word -- to continue leading this country over the next couple of years."

In a later telephone interview, Scarborough said he aired the segment because he kept hearing even fellow Republicans questioning Bush's capacity and leadership, particularly in Iraq. Like others, he said, he supported the war but now thinks it is time to find a way to get out. "A lot of conservatives are saying, 'Enough's enough,' " he said. Asked about the reaction to his program, he said, "The White House is not happy about it."

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