Laying the groundwork for what could be his own defection from the GOP, conservative activist and presidential candidate Gary Bauer yesterday defended the decision of Sen. Robert C. Smith (N.H.) to bolt from the Republican Party and seek the presidential nomination of the U.S. Taxpayers Party.

In a letter, Bauer told Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson that Smith is "a man of deep convictions and pride" who, "like millions of other Republicans," is "concerned by the retreat of our party's leadership on matters of fundamental principle."

Bauer declined in an interview to say what he would do if Texas Gov. George W. Bush gets the nomination: "I don't want to deal with that question today." Party leaders have become increasingly concerned that one or more conservative candidates running as independents or third-party candidates in the general election could ruin the chances for the GOP nominee.

Bauer made clear in his letter that he believes there is a huge ideological gulf between him and such candidates as Bush and Elizabeth Dole, the two current front-runners.

Bauer said "the differences among the candidates are profound" on issues including gun control, intervention in Kosovo, China's trade status and, most important for conservatives, the question of whether the president should appoint judges who are explicitly opposed to abortion and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made it a right.

Nicholson and other GOP officials were sharply critical of Smith's defection, contending he was leaving the party because he has been unable to win any public support, even in his home state, where he remained at 1 or 2 percent in polls.

While praising Smith's conservative beliefs, Nicholson told the senator: "I hope you don't confuse the success of our shared message with your failure as its messenger."

In a separate interview, Howard Phillips, head of the Taxpayers Party, predicted the party will get on the ballot in every state, an unusual achievement. He said he knows major donors who are prepared to give large chunks of "soft money" to the party and contributions of up to the $20,000 limit on "hard money" that can be used for supportive expenditures.