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On The Scene

King: President 'at war with his own party'

'Bush is mad that people he thought should back him up challenged him'

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CNN's John King

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Supreme Court
John King
Harriet Miers
President George W. Bush

(CNN) -- The withdrawal of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers followed weeks of criticism from some of Bush's supporters, who wanted a nominee with a clear conservative record.

The announcement also came during the last days of an investigation into the leak of a CIA operative's identity, which could target White House officials.

CNN anchor Miles O'Brien spoke Thursday with CNN chief national correspondent John King about these events and the president's next step.

O'BRIEN: Let's bring in yet another somewhat potentially related story here, and that is what is happening to the White House with the CIA leak probe and Karl Rove being a target of it. He is known as the architect. He is the political mind of the White House and has been distracted, and thus the White House is left with a rather embarrassing episode here. How embarrassing is it?

KING: Well, Miles, Karl would insist he's not distracted, but everyone at the White House insists that. And of course they are.

I went through something very similar to what the Bush White House is going through now during the Clinton-Lewinsky days. And everyone says they're not distracted. Of course they are.

And you mentioned the CIA leak investigation. Now you have the president being embarrassed, essentially, into having to withdraw a nominee for the Supreme Court. And look at the disarray in the Republican Party because of the indictment of the former House majority leader, Tom DeLay.

This is both a party and a presidency right now at the precipice, if you will. The Democrats did not have to lift a finger to create this turmoil, but they will be emboldened by what they see, what they believe to be a weakened presidency. And tomorrow we are likely to find out what happens with the CIA leak grand jury.

You have a president right now who is at war with his own party. As (CNN correspondent Dana Bash) just noted and has been reporting over the past couple of weeks, it is conservative organizations that have raised all these questions about Harriet Miers and have directly challenged a president who was once their hero.

And when you see so many Republicans on Capitol Hill refusing to back this president up, this is a president only one year into his second term who has a major problem.

He needs to pull his party back together, he needs to pull his presidency back together. And the big question now is, will he get his back up and will he pick another fight with the conservative base of the party because they forced him to do this, or will he pick somebody that they like? And that is the key question for this president now, who is clearly weakened.

Now, don't underestimate him. He has rallied back in the past. But this is a defining moment for this president, who has much he would like to get done on the domestic front, an important international agenda, too, including the unpopular war in Iraq.

This is a big test for this president. He is weak right now.

As Dana noted, I spoke to a former senior administration official just last night who said this was an unimpressive pick, the president never should have done it. But the last thing he could do right now is back down.

That former aide saying that, essentially, that would be the dam coming down, that everyone would then challenge the president if he withdrew this nomination. Well, he's done it.

O'BRIEN: The way you put it there, the president is almost painted politically into a corner. He has to at this point, when you look at the political tea leaves, pick somebody who's going to appeal to the right flank, right?

KING: Well, sometimes that's when presidents and good politicians are at their best, when they're painted into a corner. So don't count him out just yet.

As the president is fond of saying, making jokes, and when he sometimes trips over his own tongue, don't "misunderestimate him." He is a tough man. But his back will be up now.

This is a man who is very competitive. And make no mistake about it, he is mad the people that he thought that should give him the benefit of the doubt, that he thought should back him up directly challenged him.

Now, the White House does not believe many of these conservative organizations that challenged him on this, they don't believe they actually represent many voters out in the country. They believe that they use these fights to raise money, direct mail letters saying, "Help us defeat Harriet Miers" to raise money.

They are mad at them, but guess what? Those groups that the White House would like to say are fringe groups, they just won this round. And it's a pretty big battle.

The question now is, does the president go back to that conservative base, or will he pick another friend? Will he pick the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, and, in essence, pick another fight with the very groups that forced him to withdraw Harriet Miers? This is a big test for this president.

We are going to learn a lot about the tone of the rest of his second term by how he responds to this.

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