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Discontent still strong among old guard GOP

My weekend visitor was one of the founders of the postwar Republican Party in the South, one of those stubborn men who challenged the Democratic rule in his one-party state. He was conservative enough that in the great struggle for the 1952 nomination, his sympathies were with Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, not Dwight D. Eisenhower.

He has lived long enough to see Republicans elected as senator and governor of his state and to see a Republican from the Sun Belt behemoth of Texas capture the White House. His profession won't let him speak with his name attached, but he is sadly disillusioned.

"My wife was thrilled by the veto'' Bush administered last week to the bill expanding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, because she shares the president's belief that those clumps of cells destroyed in the research process represent human life.

"I thought it was stupid,'' he said. "I know too many people who are like this'' - and he shook his hands like a victim of Parkinson's disease - "and their only hope of a cure is in stem cells. Now Bush is forcing that science to move overseas.''

He went on: "How the h--- long can they refuse to raise the minimum wage?'' He was furious, he said, with the Republican leaders of Congress who keep blocking bills to raise the minimum wage, which has been stuck at $5.15 an hour for years.

"I'm a conservative,'' he said, "but they make me sound like a damned liberal the way they act. They spend like fools, they run up the deficits and they refuse to give a raise to the working people who are struggling. How the h--- are you supposed to live on $5.15 an hour these days?

"If it wasn't for Pelosi,'' he said, "I'd just as soon the Democrats take over this fall. Get some checks and balances and teach these guys a lesson.''

In the end, his dislike of Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and his ingrained disdain for the Democrats may keep my friend voting Republican. But the complaints that I heard from him - echoed by many of his contemporaries in the Taft-Goldwater-Reagan wing of the GOP - are a significant factor in the dynamics of the midterm election. They could spell trouble for Republicans in mobilizing their vote this fall.

I first became aware of the spreading discontent on the right in visiting with people in the church social hall after the funeral service this spring for Lyn Nofziger, Ronald Reagan's longtime press spokesman and adviser. The comments about the Bush White House people - who were notable by their absence at the service - startled me.

But since then, I have heard the refrain over and over: They never reached out to us. They never thought they needed our help. Now they're in trouble. To h--- with them.

Whether or not the complaints are justified, they are epidemic. They are often accompanied, as they were in the case of my weekend visitor, with the comment that everything the White House does seems to be aimed at pleasing only one section of the Republican coalition - the religious right.

That is why there was so much high-fiving on e-mails and phone calls among other Republicans over the defeat last week of Ralph Reed, the one-time driving force of Pat Robertson's religious-political movement, who lost the nomination for lieutenant governor of Georgia because of his links to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Reed, a major operative in Bush's presidential campaigns, is a symbol to many others of the influence of the religious right, though, in fact, he was much more political operative than preacher.

But the dissent threatens Republican chances of avoiding a major defeat in the midterm elections. Andrew Kohut's survey for the respected Pew Research Center last month found Democrats far more motivated to vote this year than Republicans. The Democrats held a 16-point advantage over the GOP on the question Kohut uses to gauge the level of interest in voting, exactly the reverse of the situation in 1994, the year the Republicans took over Congress.

In the last two elections - 2002 and 2004 - Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman and the rest of the Republican leaders demonstrated a superior ability to locate and turn out their voters.

But in neither of those years did they face the formidable barriers in place this year, starting with the weariness with the war in Iraq. The last thing they need is the disaffection now being displayed in their own ranks. This looms as the supreme test of their political skills.

David Broder is a columnist for the Washington Post. E-mail him at davidbroder@washpost.com. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday.