updated 2/11/2006 8:02:57 PM ET 2006-02-12T01:02:57

Hardline conservatives, among President Bush’s staunchest supporters, question whether he is conservative enough when it comes to government spending and growth, leaders of the movement say.

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“What conservatives have realized during the last five years is that we have not elected a conservative president,” said Bill Lauderback, executive vice president of the American Conservative Union. “Nor do we have a conservative majority in either the House or Senate.”

Conservatives gathered at a Washington hotel this weekend for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, where they assess the status of their movement and what they think of government policies. President Reagan remains the champion of low-tax, small-government supporters even after Bush’s re-election and the dominance of GOP lawmakers.

They are quite unhappy with some Bush administration initiatives — for example, the multibillion-dollar prescription drug program and the No Child Left Behind education law — and special spending projects from Congress that have ballooned the cost and scope of the federal government.

“We are in danger of becoming the party of big government,” said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

Pence said he and his allies in Congress plan to make sure that trend is reversed.

“The era of big Republican government is over,” Pence said, adding the word “Republican” to the memorable phrase used by President Clinton in his 1996 State of the Union address.

Backlash over big government
Many conference participants feel that limited government overrides all other issues such as gun rights, pro-life policies and conservative judges. Yet, despite their unhappiness, Bush remains popular with this group, especially for his court appointments and handling of terrorism.

“They like Bush,” said David Keene, chairman of the ACU, which runs the conference. “But they are frustrated and disappointed with some things the administration has done. And the frustration is deep because government spending and growth of government are at the core of beliefs of many people here.”

Keene said conservatives are starting to look ahead at future leaders, accepting that they’ve gotten some of what they want from Bush.

In a straw poll for presidential favorites in 2008, Virginia Sen. George Allen received 22 percent of the vote. Arizona Sen. John McCain garnered 20 percent, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani 12 percent and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice 10 percent, according results from Fabrizio, McLaughlin and Associates.

Those who attended the conference were given an opportunity to offer their preferences as they checked in, but the results do not represent the sentiments of all those present.

Still, McCain’s strong showing suggests that he is faring better with a group that was cool to his White House bid in 2000.

The campaign against terror — and not economic policy — has become the glue that binds the conservative movement, said Brent Bozell, founder and president of the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group.

“We’re ready for a candidate to assume the Reagan mantle,” he said. “Bush has done an extraordinary job on the war on terror. But on economic policy, he fiddles while Rome burns.”

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