Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) warned yesterday that President Bush would trigger a "blood bath" confirmation battle if he picks a Supreme Court nominee openly committed to wiping out the constitutional right to abortion.

Dole called the choice of a successor to Justice William J. Brennan Jr., 84, who resigned Friday, the "toughest domestic decision" of the Bush presidency. Dole and Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee sought yesterday to steer the debate away from abortion, which so far has been the main focus of discussion about Brennan's replacement.

"I hope that President Bush does not go for a single-issue litmus test," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who has been a swing vote on the Judiciary Committee, said on CBS News's "Face the Nation."

"I would hope that would not get down to that kind of single issue," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), another committee member. "I think if a nominee was sent up at this historical point in the court's history with the determination that he or she will vote a certain way on a certain case to overturn law . . . you do have a very real question whether the Senate should go along with it."

Bush met briefly at the White House last night with Vice President Quayle, Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and counsel C. Boyden Gray for an update on the search process, White House spokeswoman Alixe Glen said.

"It's to update Bush on what Thornburgh and Boyden did throughout the weekend at his direction from their Saturday meeting," Glen said before the session. "I suspect that these similar meetings will continue throughout the week."

Dole, interviewed on NBC News's "Meet the Press," said Bush telephoned him Saturday night to discuss the vacancy. Dole said he told the president "that I assumed the big 'A' word {abortion} would be the tough hurdle to climb."

Dole said that although he would like to see the court reverse its 1973 decision that there is a constitutional right to abortion, "if you have to have someone who wants to overturn Roe versus Wade, it's going to be a blood bath getting the nomination confirmed, and the same is true on the other side." Dole said the selection "could be the bellwether decision" in the first two years of Bush's presidency.

Asked whether Bush owes conservatives a clear victory on abortion, given his abandonment of his "no new taxes" pledge, Dole replied: "Well, I think some conservatives feel that. But what President Bush owes the country -- I think that's the important thing, not any group, liberals or conservatives, or pro-life or pro-choice -- is an outstanding nominee who will be on the bench for some time."

The abortion issue is expected to play an influential role in the fall congressional elections and is difficult to deal with both for Bush and the Republican Party.

Two closely watched Senate races feature Republican candidates -- Reps. Lynn Martin (Ill.) and Claudine Schneider (R.I.) -- who have said they are committed to abortion rights and could be hurt by a nominee who has stated opposition to Roe v. Wade.

At the same time, some conservative activists are demanding a candidate clearly committed to overruling Roe.

One of the critical questions facing the Judiciary Committee will be the degree to which the senators are willing to question a nominee whose views on Roe are unclear.

During his unsuccessful confirmation hearings in 1987, then-federal judge Robert H. Bork offered detailed answers about his views on an array of Supreme Court decisions and legal issues, but Bork's was an unusual case because of the sweep of his legal writings.

Generally, nominees have not been forced to say how they would vote on particular issues. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, approved for the vacancy for which Bork originally was nominated, was not quizzed about his views on Roe because he had not written on the subject.

Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), one of the most liberal members of the Judiciary Committee, said yesterday on ABC News's "This Week with David Brinkley" that he does not "think it's good practice of the White House to inquire of a prospective nominee where he or she stands on an issue, and I have some concerns about our doing that at the Judiciary Committee."

Metzenbaum said there is an "overwhelming likelihood" that Bush's choice for the vacancy will be confirmed, but added that there is a "fair chance" he would vote to reject a nominee who had announced opposition to Roe.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who has been mentioned as a possible nominee, agreed that questioning on specific issues such as affirmative action would be improper "because those issues are all going to be before the new justice."

But Faye Wattleton of Planned Parenthood said the senators will face enormous pressure to ascertain a nominee's views on abortion rights. "I don't think that the American people will tolerate for a minute a justice being confirmed who did not answer that question," she said.

Kennedy's confirmation hearing, she said, was before "the Supreme Court politicized the abortion issue" in its 1989 decision giving states greater leeway to impose abortion restrictions. "The same rules simply do not apply any longer."

Meanwhile, some conservatives are backing a conservative judge from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Edith H. Jones. Jones does not appear to have written directly on the abortion issue but has generally adopted a narrow interpretation of constitutional protections.

"She would be my first choice," said Robert Billings, legislative director of the American Conservative Union. "I have to believe that because she's a constructionist that she would deal with Roe v. Wade right."

Beverley LaHaye, president of Concerned Women for America, said she wrote Bush urging him to nominate Jones "or someone with a similar legal philosophy." LaHaye said Jones's "record of the federal appeals court reveals her consistent adherence to strict construction of the Constitution."