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Factions lobby Bush on court

Sun reporter

Washington // As he prepares to name a new Supreme Court nominee, perhaps as early as today, President Bush is navigating a web of competing pressures from outside interest groups and factions within the White House.

The forces include everyone from conservative activists pushing for a hard-line jurist and political advisers eager to expand the Republican Party's appeal to Hispanics, right down to the first lady's very public wish for a female justice.

Bush's list of potential nominees, the subject of widespread speculation in recent weeks, reflects that range of interests. All these factions are hoping that Bush's pick to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will make history, by influencing the future of the court, changing the face of his party, altering the shape of his legacy -- or perhaps all three.

His wife, Laura, gave the president some of the most prominent advice he has received about how to replace O'Connor, the court's first woman, which the first lady amplified in media interviews.

"As a woman myself," she told American Urban Radio last month, "I hope it will be a woman."

O'Connor betrayed a similar view, shortly after Bush named Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. as his first Supreme Court pick, when she said, "He's good in every way, except he's not a woman."

Bush is said to be considering several women to succeed O'Connor, including federal appeals court judges Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen, Karen Williams, Maura Corrigan, Consuelo M. Callahan and Alice Batchelder.

But for Bush, whose political team keeps a laserlike focus on widening the Republican base, tapping the first Hispanic justice is also an appealing prospect -- one that would earn Bush the added bonus of a line in the history books.

Speculation has focused on Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, a close friend of Bush's who is Mexican-American. He served as a Texas judge and as Bush's White House counsel before taking his current post.

Or Bush could choose another Mexican-American from Texas, Emilio Garza, who sits on the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit appeals court. Garza takes a narrow view of the court's role and has sometimes accused the justices of power grabs. That's how he characterized the landmark abortion-rights ruling Roe v. Wade, writing in a 1997 opinion that it was "inimical to the Constitution."

Boosting appeal Choosing a Hispanic would fit with Bush's efforts to make inroads with Hispanic voters and follow the pattern of diversity he has established in choosing his Cabinet and filling other top positions. It could also saddle Democrats, who have historically drawn more minority votes, with the politically difficult task of attacking a nominee who would likely become a powerful symbol for racial equality.

That would also be the case if Bush picked Larry D. Thompson, a PepsiCo executive and former Justice Department official, who is black.

Bush also must consider more immediate concerns as he weighs his court choice, including his sagging approval ratings, discontent over the war in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and a rash of Republican scandals capped by the indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Depending on who's advising him, the turmoil could be an argument for choosing a moderate who would appeal to a broad swath of the public, or a justification for tacking right with a hard-line conservative who would galvanize the Republican base.

Appeasing the base Conservative activists argue that Bush's troubles should push him toward one of their darlings, such as Brown, Owen or appellate judges J. Michael Luttig and Samuel Alito, both white.

Bush campaigned in 2000 promising to choose justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the court's staunchest conservatives, and those judges are among the most prominently mentioned who would fit that bill.

A more centrist pick, conservative strategists say, could cost the president his strongest, most organized base of support when he can least afford it.

Lesser-known conservative favorites include Edith Hollan Jones of the 5th Circuit and Michael McConnell of the Denver-based 10th Circuit.

With the war in Iraq losing popularity, his plan to add private accounts to Social Security floundering and his party otherwise in chaos, the court may be Bush's best chance to activate a frustrated base in support of Republicans for elections next year and beyond.

Legacy issue "If he doesn't do that, he's committing political suicide, because the coalition that has kept together largely because of the judicial issue would fly apart," Paul Weyrich of the conservative Free Congress Foundation said recently.

Bush's "legacy is the courts," Weyrich said. "If he gets that right, he's going to be well remembered. And if he doesn't, it doesn't matter whether he's up for re-election or not, you're going to have a repudiation of Republicans in 2006 that will reflect awfully on him, and he will have a miserable, devastating last two years in office."

Still, Democrats and liberal groups have promised Bush a bitter fight if he names an ideological conservative, particularly Brown or Owen, whom Democrats blocked for months and allowed to be confirmed earlier this year only as part of a bipartisan deal to avoid a Senate meltdown over judicial filibusters.

Brown, a judge on the D.C. Circuit, would be the most contentious choice, not just because of her rulings on issues ranging from abortion rights to property rights, but also because of her harshly worded speeches that show an anti-government bent.

Strident words She once referred to a New Deal-era court ruling as "the triumph of our socialist revolution," and has complained that "Where government moves in, community retreats, civil society disintegrates, and our ability to control our own destiny atrophies."

Owen, a judge on the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit, has a record of opinions that puts her in Brown's conservative company, but a reputation as a quiet, circumspect judge that makes her less of a lightning rod for criticism.

Some strategists believe that as Bush slogs through a politically difficult period, he would be better served by avoiding a bruising partisan fight and by choosing a conservative who, like Roberts, has a short track record of rulings to be mined by opponents.

Williams, a judge on the Richmond-based 4th Circuit, could be such a choice, as could Callahan, who has served on the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit for only two years.

The approach also could lead Bush to choose someone from outside the judicial branch, such as Thompson or his White House counsel, Harriet Miers, rumored in recent days to be a top contender.

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