By Lawrence M. O'Rourke
The president and congressional Republican leaders may have enhanced their standing with religious conservatives, one of the key groups in their winning coalition at the polls last November.
But some analysts contend that the president's dramatic re-affirmation of his close ties with the Christian right may erode his appeal to centrists, including Republican moderates in the Senate.
The president needs centrist and bipartisan support to enact Social Security overhaul, push through a belt-tightening federal budget and win Senate confirmation of judicial nominees, perhaps including Supreme Court justices.
The political implications of the Schiavo case surfaced with the discussion on the Senate floor of an unsigned memo to Republican lawmakers that it was "a great political issue."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he "condemned the content of the memo" and declared that his interest and that of many members of the Senate in both parties was to "assure that Mrs. Schiavo has another chance at life."
Frist and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, had the leading Capitol Hill roles in winning congressional approval of legislation to allow federal courts to intervene in the case.
But Frist, a heart surgeon before he entered Congress, came under political fire for a statement on Schiavo's condition that he made after looking at her on televised videotape. "Terri is alive. Terri is not in a coma," Frist said.
The idea that Frist could make a medical diagnosis via videotapes that contradicted the reports of several doctors in recent years that Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state caused ripples across Capitol Hill and in the medical community that Fritz tried to calm last week.
In a statement, the majority leader declared, "I don't know her diagnosis." He said his aim in passing the legislation was to get the federal courts to take a "fresh look" that would have required new examinations by doctors of Schiavo.
Frist's press secretary, Bob Stevenson, said in a statement that Frist "carefully reviewed medical information, records, videotapes, and sworn affidavits that were in the court records. The suggestion by some that Sen. Frist was making a diagnosis in the Schiavo case is absurd. Nowhere in his statement was he substituting his opinion for others."
Frist's effort to preserve Schiavo's life could help him with conservative religious voters during the 2008 presidential primaries should he decide to run for president, said Kyle Kreider, a political scientist at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. But the statement on Schiavo's medical condition "could also damage his credibility," Kreider said.
Even among the conservative Christians who have fought hard to keep Schiavo alive, the extraordinary intervention by the president and GOP leaders in expanding federal authority could have a political downside, some analysts said.
The White House and GOP majority on Capitol Hill raised expectations that by their unprecedented act of bringing in federal authority to supplement Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, they could force the reinsertion of a feeding tube into the brain-damaged Florida woman.
But when that strategy failed in the federal courts, religious right groups urged more aggressive action by Jeb Bush, the president's brother.
A conservative online news service reported Friday that a Florida religious conservative organization called Crossroads urged Gov. Bush to ignore court orders and take whatever further steps are needed to secure Schiavo's life.
Although Bush declared, "I've consistently said that I cannot go beyond what my powers are, and I'm not going to do it," the group said that Bush might have to decide between his political career and Schiavo's life.
Randall Terry, spokesman for Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, predicted severe political consequences for the governor - and by extension Republican officeholders - if Schiavo dies.
"I promise you, if she does, there's going to be hell to pay with pro-life, pro-family Republican people of various legislative levels, both statewide and federally, who have used pro-life, pro-family conservative rhetoric to get into power, and then when they have the power, they refuse to use it," Terry said.