WASHINGTON // When it comes to President Bush's latest Supreme Court pick, think Condi, not Cheney.
Bush's surprise choice of Harriet E. Miers prompted commentators to note that she got her nomination in the way Vice President Dick Cheney got his. Both had been asked by Bush to screen candidates for the positions that he wound up giving to them instead.
A better comparison, however, would be to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose rise to the loftiest heights of Washington power offers striking parallels to Miers', as does her unquestioned loyalty to Bush.
Miers "has been a good counselor to him and she's served him loyally," said former Bush aide David Frum. He nonetheless was critical of her selection, which stunned conservative activists expecting a hard-line ideologue to get the nod.
The choice appeared to signal a new effort by Bush to prevent the recent upheavals in Washington - everything from the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which raised questions about the administration's competence, to the ethics problems dogging Republicans on Capitol Hill - from overshadowing his agenda.
"Miers was a surprise, in that many people expected Bush to go with more of a movement conservative. The ability to be confirmed, with [Democratic Sens. Patrick J.] Leahy and [Harry] Reid supporting the nominee, must have driven the final decision," said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist.
At 60, Miers is older than many of Bush's other court nominees, including 50-year-old Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. - another indication that factors other than a desire to mold the court for decades might have driven the decision.
Unable or unwilling to endure the inevitable battle over a hard-line nominee, Bush chose instead to circle the wagons and make loyalty the qualification that trumps everything, Republicans said.
Miers has "total devotion" and "total loyalty" to Bush, important characteristics that she shares with Rice, said a Republican close to the White House.
Miers is a driven, single woman, born and raised in the South, who blazed a trail of her own in a white male-dominated world. The same is true of Rice. The two women have provided Bush with discreet advice in perhaps the most important areas where he lacked real experience: the law and foreign policy.
Miers is also unusually close to Bush personally, with whom she shares an active interest in sports, as does Rice.
Both women have spent leisure time with the president and his wife at Camp David and at his Texas ranch, reflecting a personal comfort level with the president, as well as their importance within his administration and their single-minded dedication to him and to their work.
"I've known Harriet for more than a decade," said Bush, in announcing her selection. "I know her heart. I know her character."
Miers had already been the first woman to head the Texas bar association when she joined Bush's first campaign for governor.
Since then, she has served as his personal lawyer, an adviser to his presidential campaign and, most recently, White House counsel, as well as his appointee to head the Texas Lottery Commission.
Rice was provost of Stanford University before becoming Bush's foreign policy tutor and, later, White House national security adviser.
Miers is viewed as a logical choice for a president who wanted to select a female nominee and who, as one former aide put it, saw in Miers some personal traits that reminded him of Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female justice, whom she would replace.
As he did when he promoted Rice to secretary of state last fall, Bush highlighted a portion of Miers' background that humanizes her: the illness of her late father, which forced her to go to work to help pay her college bills.
In Rice's case, it was her upbringing as a black woman in segregated Alabama that Bush chose to spotlight.
Her influence within Bush's inner circle, like that of Rice and another longtime aide, Karen Hughes, is evidence that Bush relies on women as his closest advisers, perhaps to a greater degree than any other modern president.
But former Bush aide Frum sees a more troubling pattern: that Bush makes personnel decisions more on the basis of personal connections than competence.
He described Miers as "a taut, nervous, anxious personality" who might well fail to deliver, in years to come, the hard-line ideology that Frum and conservative activists are demanding.
Frum used the terminology of tennis, one of the sports that Miers plays, to criticize her selection as an "unforced error" by Bush.
Avoiding mistakes, particularly the ones made by his father, has been a hallmark of Bush's career as a politician.
But to some conservatives, the selection of Miers raises the possibility that Bush has repeated what they regard as one of his father's biggest blunders: picking Justice David H. Souter, who has turned out to be far more moderate than expected.
"There is no reason at all to believe either that [Miers] is a legal conservative or, more importantly, that she has the spine and steel necessary to resist the pressures that constantly bend the American legal system toward the left," wrote Frum in his National Review Online Web log.
"We are being asked by this president to take this appointment purely on trust, without any independent reason to support it.
"And that is not a request conservatives can safely grant."
To blunt that line of criticism, and try to reassure millions of his party's staunchest supporters, Vice President Dick Cheney hit the conservative talk-radio airwaves yesterday - something he did not do after the Roberts nomination in July.
"I think you'll find that Harriet is rock-solid, from a philosophical standpoint, Sean," he told the host of the Sean Hannity Show.
Cheney also said he didn't think it was true that Bush picked Miers because he was too damaged politically to wage a nomination fight in the Senate with liberal Democrats.
Miers is regarded by those who know her as a tough backroom negotiator, a lawyer's lawyer who has helped deal with some of Bush's most sensitive legal problems.
Her common sense makes Miers "sort of like the county sheriff" inside the White House, where her role has been to let other aides know when their ideas "don't make sense in the real world," said a former colleague.
Jim Francis, a veteran Republican strategist and fundraiser in Dallas, calls her a "workaholic" who has been "a conservative her entire life."
In late 1993, Francis said, he recommended to Bush that he hire Miers as general counsel for his campaign to unseat Democratic Gov. Ann W. Richards.
"I thought it was important that the campaign have a female general counsel [because Bush was running] against a female governor," Francis said in a telephone interview.
Miers "had credibility. She was the past president of the state bar, past president of the Dallas bar. She was the head of a major law firm. She was a woman and she was an excellent choice," said Francis, who said he got to know Miers through Republican politics in Dallas.
Miers' background in her native Dallas, a conservative, pro-business city, is likely to draw intense scrutiny in coming days, as will her work for Bush in Austin and in Washington.
Miers attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas at the same time as Laura Bush and served one term on the nonpartisan Dallas City Council in the 1980s.
Francis, a longtime Bush adviser, was dismissive of conservative criticism of Miers.
"I don't even know how to respond to that," he said. "She was and has been a conservative her entire life."
Harriet Ellan Miers
Age: 60, born in Dallas
Education: B.S., Southern Methodist University, 1967; J.D., Southern Methodist University School of Law, 1970
Career highlights: White House counsel; White House deputy chief of staff for policy; White House staff secretary; chairwoman, Texas Lottery Commission; private law practice; president, Dallas Bar Association
Family: Single, no children