WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is heading into what are supposed to be the final days of his often-delayed process of finding a Supreme Court nominee with his focus on five federal judges -- three men and two women.
The "short list" that several of those close to the process say is before the president includes U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judges Stephen G. Breyer, 54, of Boston; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 60, of Washington; Jon O. Newman, 61, of Hartford, Conn., and Amalya L. Kearse, 55, of New York. Also under consideration is Federal District Judge Jose A. Cabranes, 52, of New Haven, Conn.
Although Mr. Clinton missed his staff's preference for having a nominee chosen by last week for the seat being vacated by retiring Justice Byron R. White, he now is said to be working toward a final choice next week.
Judge Breyer's name has been the most persistent one on the lists circulating within the White House and has seemed the favorite for several days, according to outside advisers who have been helping in the filtering process.
Of the four others said to be among the finalists, some have been mentioned in the past, then dropped from the short list, and then put back onto it, including the two women, Judges Ginsburg and Kearse.
Judge Newman, who has been mentioned in some news accounts as Judge Breyer's closest rival for the position, was said to be losing ground yesterday because of political concern over the highly visible position he took against Justice Clarence Thomas' nomination two years ago.
Judge Cabranes' name has been circulated actively by White House staff aides, partly to make certain that the word gets out that a Hispanic is being seriously considered.
"The list changes hour to hour," said one person closely familiar with the process, who warned that the president has expressed discontent to the staff about the names put before him. "More names still could be considered."
The seeming rise and swift fade, all within the space of two days, of a Tennessee federal appeals court judge shows some of the uncertainty of pinpointing presidential intent.
Judge Gilbert S. Merritt, 57, of Nashville, was actively considered earlier this week, and one of his colleagues on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Nathaniel R. Jones, who has close friends on the president's staff, went to the White House for a visit -- presumably to be interviewed about Mr. Merritt.
Part of the flurry involving Judge Merritt was said to be the president's desire to look for candidates in the South, where he needs to shore himself up politically. That was a reason that former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles of Virginia got a close look a week ago, it was suggested at the time.
But almost as soon as Judge Merritt was entered in the final round ofpotentials, his chances promptly began to fade, sources here said.
Judge Ginsburg's recent fate also indicates how the process changes rapidly. Only two weeks ago, she had appeared to drop out of favor with the White House staff, because of concern about a speech she had made that was mildly critical of the constitutional basis for the Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion.
But women's rights groups, strongly in favor of Judge Ginsburg as a potential nominee, reportedly have convinced the Clinton staff that she should be put back in the running.