WASHINGTON - Stepping up preparations for the possible retirement of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist - perhaps as early as next week - the White House has narrowed its list of potential replacements to a handful of federal appeals court judges and has conducted interviews with leading contenders, a senior administration official said yesterday.
Senior White House officials and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales have interviewed top candidates and briefed President Bush, but the president has not made a decision, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
White House officials also consider Gonzales, 49, to be a possible nominee, according to the official and other sources close to the administration. He would meet fierce opposition from conservatives who see him as too moderate to replace the conservative Rehnquist.
It's widely assumed in Washington legal and political circles that Rehnquist, 80, will announce his retirement next week. He announced in October that he has thyroid cancer; he missed five months of oral arguments before returning to the bench.
But in recent weeks, observers have begun suggesting that he might stay on the bench.
Given the uncertainty, the White House has been quietly researching and interviewing prospective nominees, the official said. If Rehnquist retires, the White House likely would announce the nominee within days, the official said.