The building blocks of President Bush's career his credibility and image as a strong and competent leader have been severely undercut by self-inflicted wounds, leading close allies to fret about his presidency. They say he's lost his way.
These senior Republicans, including past and current White House advisers, say they believe the president can find his way back into people's hearts but extreme measures need to be taken. Shake up his staff, unveil fresh policies, travel the country and be more accountable for his mistakes these and other solutions are being discussed at the highest levels of the GOP.
But first this question: How did this happen?
Bush built an image as a straight-talking politician as governor of Texas and a candidate for president. Running to replace the Clinton administration in 2000, he raised his right hand at nearly every campaign event and swore to uphold the dignity and honor of the presidency.
The vow was not just a reference to the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. It was a nod at every ethical question that ever hovered over President Clinton, any blurring of what Bush viewed as a clear bright line between right and wrong.
"In my administration, we will ask not only what is legal but what is right, not just what the lawyers allow but what the public deserves," Bush said Oct. 26, 2000.
Five years later, senior White House adviser I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was accused of covering up his involvement in the CIA leak case, an investigation that raises questions about the role played by Bush confidant Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney to discredit an Iraq war critic.
The case cuts at the president's hard-earned credibility.
In June 2004, Bush said he stood by his pledge to "fire anybody" in his administration shown to have leaked Valerie Plame's name. His press secretary, after checking with Libby and Karl, assured the public that neither man had anything to do with the leak.
It turns out they both were involved, though Rove has not been charged and neither man has been charged with breaking the law against revealing the identity of an undercover agent.
The president's own supporters call that a Clintonesque distinction that violates the spirit of Bush's pledge from 2000. Some say Bush should publicly chastise Libby and Rove while insisting on a public accounting of Cheney's role.
A White House official privately put it this way: Bush has to step up somehow and be accountable.
These allies said they would only speak on condition of anonymity because they did not want to be viewed as disloyal.
Responding to the friendly fire, White House communications director Nicolle Wallace said, "As he did in a major speech today about the avian flu, the president is going to continue to speak with clarity and conviction in that straight-talking manner (he's known for) about the risks ahead."
The public's loss of faith in Bush goes back many months to the early weeks of the Iraq war, when nearly two-thirds of Americans found him trustworthy. Less than half felt that way in October, according to the Pew Research Center.
One issue is the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, Bush's chief rationale for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Rather than admit a mistake, Bush emphasized other reasons for war.
The president's credibility and competency took another hit when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. The sluggish relief effort left some wondering whether a government that failed to provide food and water to refugees could protect them from terrorism.
Bush accepted responsibility, but the belated and reluctant nature of his mea culpa did not go over well with Americans who like their leaders to be buck-stops-here accountable.
"I think it's hard for the president to admit mistakes," said Chris DePino, former chairman of the Connecticut GOP. "It would be better if he did."
At the White House, Wallace said the president proposed a Gulf Coast recovery plan, visited the region several times and on Tuesday appointed a recovery chief. "It's not just the president's word, but he backs them with action," she said.
Credibility is a new and dangerous issue for Bush.
"He's always been known for straight talk and blunt talk never shied away from that. And that just hasn't been there recently," said GOP consultant John Truscott of Michigan. He and DePino said they expect Bush to turn things around.
Besides, this is not all his fault. Like other presidents, Bush is captive to events that are out of his control.
When terrorists strike in Iraq, Bush pays a price. When globalization squeezes middle-class Americans, they don't feel the U.S. economic rebound. When a hurricane hits the Gulf Coast, a perfect government response is going to miss some people's needs.
The percentage of people who call Bush a strong leader has dropped more than 15 points since September 2003.
"They've been thrown off their game," Truscott said, "and they haven't found their way back on again."
Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press