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Conservatives' ardor for GOP cooling down

By Sasha Johnson
CNN Washington Bureau

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Former Rep. Pat Toomey says "Republicans in Washington have lost their way."

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PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Conservative Republicans gathering to talk about the upcoming elections normally would be a welcome event for national party leaders. But not this year.

The Republicans who got together last month for the Pennsylvania Republican Assembly (PARA), a grassroots group dedicated to electing conservatives, represent what could be the biggest threat to the GOP this year: a disgruntled conservative base.

"It's pretty clear at some level that Republicans in Washington have lost their way," former Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Toomey told the group at a Pittsburgh Holiday Inn. "We're discovering that a lot of Republicans are very disappointed with this Republican Congress. It most likely will manifest itself with low turnout if something doesn't happen to turn this around." (Watch what has conservatives seeing red --2:39)

President Bush's plummeting approval rating and the public's increasingly tenuous support for Republicans in Congress is starting to be a familiar story -- but it may have reached the point where leaders won't be able to energize the GOP base to come out for this year's mid-term election.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday found that Republican disapproval of the president has doubled in the last month, 16 percent to 30 percent.

"They're acting like Democrats," said Ray Horvath, referring to Republicans in Washington. "But they can't get away with it forever because there are a lot of us that are tired of it."

Horvath calls himself an issue-voting conservative. Several Republicans who turned out to join PARA said issues like illegal immigration and "out of control" domestic spending are reasons for their lackluster enthusiasm. Most important, they are disappointed in what they see as conservative principles touted in the GOP's 1994 "Contract with America" being tossed aside in order to attract more middle-ground voters.

"The void it's filling is there's a lack of conscience, lack of dedication to principle. That's why we did it," said Andy Dlinn, describing why he and others established PARA.

Dlinn's goal is to motivate conservatives and Republicans to turn out this November to back candidates that adhere to what he calls "true" conservative principles.

"We've got candidates right now in tough races that are in those tough races because they're pandering ... you stay on principle and do the right thing, people are going to respond to that, they do," Dlinn said.

Richard Engle, president of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, believes the true activists will vote this fall out of obligation. He's unsure about the less die-hard Republicans.

"It's the ones who are so busy with their businesses and their families and with their churches and with their civic groups and with their lives that aren't going to find it all that important," Engle said. Just turning out to vote may not be enough.

The Republican Party regards the conservative base as the foot soldiers -- the ones who will knock on doors, work the phone banks for candidates and lead that last 72-hour push before Election Day.

"I'll vote. There may be some blank spaces, there may be some write-ins, but I'll get out to vote," said Horvath. "I doubt that I'll be working for any candidates though, I don't see that happening at this point."

Could the conservative base use this fall's election to prove a point?

"I would certainly prefer not to have the Democrats in charge of the House or the Senate," said Henry Jackson, a Pennsylvania conservative activist. "But I think it might be more important to send the Republicans a message."

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