WASHINGTON -- President Clinton moved toward naming a Supreme Court nominee last night, meeting with advisers to review a list that officials say has been pared to four contenders.
Officials said the finalists to replace retiring Justice Harry A. Blackmun are:
* Richard S. Arnold of Arkansas, the chief appellate judge of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
* Bruce E. Babbitt, the U.S. interior secretary.
* Jose A. Cabranes, U.S. District Court judge in New Haven, Conn.
* Amalya L. Kearse, a federal appeals court judge in New York.
The president "may pull another name out of a hat, but these are the finalists right now," one White House official said. This official said the decision could come as soon as today but that it would more likely be early next week.
The candidates, all in their 50s and all considered slightly left of center, have widely differing backgrounds. They are being touted by different constituencies -- even within the White House itself.
Judge Cabranes was appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter and was considered for elevation by President George Bush, which may be a mark against him in this White House. But he would be the first Hispanic to serve on the court, and Latino groups have rallied around him. Democratic operatives with their eye on the 1996 election also believe that his selection would send a good signal to Hispanic voters in several key states, including Florida, Texas and California.
Judge Kearse, another Carter appointee, served on the board of both the Urban League and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Her name also was floated in the Bush administration. This time, it was advanced by civil rights groups.
If appointed, Judge Kearse would also be a historic first: the first black woman on the court.
Judge Arnold is an Arkansan whom Mr. Clinton knows and respects -- and who has close ties to the Arkansas Democratic Party machine. He served as an aide in the governor's office and to Sen. Dale Bumpers, and his appointment would raise a specter this White House has been trying to bury: that of Arkansas cronyism.
Another problem may be Judge Arnold's health. Judge Arnold has a form of lymphoma and underwent low-dose radiation treatments about a year ago, and the White House counsel's office is said to have asked for his medical records.
White House aides seem to be divided on Judge Arnold. Some are not eager for the president to trigger another round of Arkansas-related news stories with all that this entails -- including Whitewater. Others say Mr. Clinton should choose whomever he thinks is best for the job -- the press and the Republicans and Whitewater be damned.
Yesterday, Mr. Clinton revealed a defiant streak of his own. Asked whether Judge Arnold should be "penalized" because he is from Arkansas, Mr. Clinton replied: "I don't think any American would expect someone to be disqualified because they happen to come from my state."
He then touted Judge Arnold's qualifications: first in his class at Yale University and Harvard Law School, chief judge of the 8th Circuit, head of the Appellate Judges Association.
The president's response made an impression with aides who are curious themselves about whom Mr. Clinton will choose. "He ticked off that resume like it was his own," said one White House official.
Others prefer another candidate with whom Mr. Clinton is close personally: Mr. Babbitt. A former governor and attorney general of Arizona, Mr. Babbitt has been tackling the tough Western land-use issues that previous interior secretaries avoided -- and been getting criticized for it from both sides.
He was a finalist in June, when Mr. Clinton chose Ruth Bader Ginsburg to fill a Supreme Court seat, and this time he announced immediately that he wasn't interested. In an interview earlier this spring with The Sun, the interior secretary said he had made his peace with not being on the court, concluding: "I know I'm right for this job."
But one top White House official said last night that should the president tell Mr. Babbitt that he needs him on the court, Mr. Babbitt would likely agree. He would fit at least two criteria Mr. Clinton has publicly said he is interested in: He has a reputation as a consensus-builder, and he is a lawyer who attained stature in public life outside the law.