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Once More, Bush Turns To His Inner Circle

The Bush team expected the opportunity to fill a second seat because Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist had cancer. If Rehnquist retired or died, aides said, the plan was to elevate Roberts as a nominee to be chief justice and pick someone else for associate justice. When Rehnquist died last month, Bush nominated Roberts and reopened the search for a second justice.

Some of those considered during the first round dropped off the radar screen. Judge Edith Brown Clement of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit was scratched because she did not impress the White House during interviews for the seat that went to Roberts, according to sources close to the process. Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the 4th Circuit all but killed his chances because he talked about his July interview with Bush in the New York Times.

Bush had long considered naming Gonzales to the court, making him the nation's first Hispanic justice, but conservative opposition was so fierce that it undercut his candidacy. With first lady Laura Bush urging that a woman be named to fill O'Connor's seat, the White House put six women on the short list of 12 to 15 candidates.

Aides said Bush had been dwelling on advice from Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and others to consider candidates with real-world lawyering experience, not just those from the appellate bench. "He was really struck with the idea of bringing an additional layer of diversity to the court in terms of life experience," said the senior official close to the process.

So when Specter and three other top senators came to the White House for breakfast with Bush on Sept. 21, the stage was set for Miers. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) may have helped seal the deal by recommending Miers during the breakfast, according to aides on both sides. Reid told Bush that Miers "is worthy of consideration," said the senator's spokesman, Jim Manley.

Bush sat down with Miers in the Oval Office that same day for the first of four conversations in which she was the interviewee instead of the interviewer. Miers was stunned at first.

"We said, 'Well, Harriet, look at your résumé. Is that the résumé of someone you would recommend the president consider?' " recalled the senior official. "And she said, 'Yes.' "

Last week, the Bush team did something it rarely does with appointments -- float a name in the media to test reaction. The White House also took the temperature of James C. Dobson, head of the conservative Focus on the Family, who gave his blessing if she were nominated. But other Republican supporters dismissed the notion that she would be chosen, seeing her as underqualified, too old at 60, and unable to match Roberts for erudition. "Sitting up there on the witness table after Roberts isn't going to look good," one said last week.

Other conservatives who have been advising the White House began trying to reassure their brethren. "There's a lot of unknown -- people don't know her," said one, Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice. "But let me tell you, she is a heavyweight."

In the end, Bush took his own counsel -- figuratively and literally. After interviewing Miers in the Oval Office last Wednesday and Thursday, he headed off to Camp David for the weekend with Card for last-minute discussions, then returned to Washington on Sunday. Bush summoned Miers to the White House that evening and offered her the job. After she said yes, the two and Laura Bush celebrated by sitting down to a dinner of fried shrimp, polenta and chocolate mousse.

"He knows by his relationship with her that the Harriet Miers he knows today will be the Harriet Miers 20 years from now," said the senior official, meaning she would be no Souter. "She knows his expectations. She is the kind of person I strongly believe would never put herself in the position to be considered if she wouldn't meet those expectations."

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