Some major donors to the Club for Growth, a principal fund-raising engine of the conservative movement, have said they plan to sit out this year's presidential election to protest what they see as the administration's big-government tendencies.
At a dinner in Manhattan on Tuesday for about 20 prominent members of the club, President Bush's credentials as a limited-government conservative became the subject of heated debate. Many of those present criticized the president's Medicare plan as too expensive and his erstwhile support for steel tariffs as inefficient, several participants said. Many also complained that Mr. Bush had betrayed their cause by providing pivotal support for Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a moderate Republican, in a primary challenge by Representative Pat Toomey, a conservative supported by the club, participants said.
One mainstay of the group, the investment manager Tucker Andersen, told other members that he planned to withhold his vote and his money from the president. "I would be surprised if more than half the people in the room actually wrote checks for him," Mr. Andersen said in an interview yesterday. The Bush campaign has raised a record sum of more than $200 million already, and the club's president, Stephen Moore, said he still hoped to raise $10 million from members to buy advertisements related to the presidential race. But the discord within the club may represent a larger slip in the support for the president in his conservative base.
The Club for Growth was founded in 1999 to raise money by bundling contributions for political candidates who supported an anti-tax, limited-government agenda, often backing conservative candidates against what it calls RINOs - Republicans in Name Only - in an effort to pull the party to the right. Beginning with a handful of the truly rich, it raised $2.5 million in 2000. In 2002, it raised more than $10 million from a total of 9,000 members.
It has become one of the most potent fund-raising machines on the right, said Steven Weiss, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions. "As it relates to the presidential election, it is more symbolic than anything," he said of members' discontent. "To the extent that it reflects a larger division in the Republican Party, that is a concern for George Bush."
But Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, said Mr. Bush was as popular among Republicans as Ronald Reagan was at this point in his presidency. "The president's level of support among Republican voters and conservative voters is at a historic high," he said. "The party is united behind the president."
Mr. Moore confirmed that many club members were torn over support for the president, saying that many board members felt some frustration with the administration's spending.
"There are a lot of donors who have said, 'No, I am not going to support Bush because he is a big spender or because he supported Specter or because of the steel tariffs,' " he said. "It is easier to raise money for ads attacking Kerry than for pro-Bush ads."
Still, Mr. Moore said most conservatives were forgiving the president. "Look, Bush still needs to do some mending of fences with conservatives on the overspending and on the interference in campaigns like the Toomey-Specter race," he said. "But it is also true that we are going to be pulling very strongly for him nonetheless. A lot of people who are upset with Bush find John Kerry a very frightening prospect in the White House."
Mr. Moore himself helped initiate the debate Tuesday evening, people present said. After the club's board members, founders and some donors had finished interviewing four candidates vying for its support, the participants retired for dinner around the corner at an Italian restaurant, Patsy's, where Mr. Moore asked Mr. Andersen about his skeptical take on the administration.
Mr. Andersen, who is also on the boards of Gopac, an organization that seeks to groom Republican candidates at the state level, and the libertarian Cato Institute, said he soured on Mr. Bush over the Medicare overhaul.
In an interview, he said he had argued that proponents of limited government might be better off with a Democrat in the White House and the Republicans in control of one house of Congress because the divided government would block any new program from either side.
"There is no spending program that this administration doesn't like," Mr. Andersen said. "Except for the tax cut, I can't find that much to support."
The only way Mr. Bush might win back his support is by championing the privatization of Social Security, Mr. Andersen said.
A few participants also faulted the president's conduct of the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act, an antiterrorism law that some libertarians say violates privacy rights. "The more libertarian-leaning Republicans are by far the ones who are the most angry at Bush," Mr. Moore said.
But Steve Stephens, heir to the Stephens Inc. investment banking dynasty of Little Rock and a board member of the club, said he saw at least one good reason to support the president. "George Bush has begun one thing enormously important, and that is cutting taxes," he said.
Richard Gilder, whose investment firm, Gilder Gagnon Howe & Company, was host of the meeting before the dinner, played down the debate. When Mr. Andersen spoke, Mr. Gilder said, only a couple of others appeared to share his views.
"One was outspoken and two head-nodders, and the rest were behind the president," he said.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company