Many of President Bush's conservative supporters lined up in staunch opposition yesterday to the candidate he might personally most want to name to the Supreme Court, his longtime friend and adviser, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, as battle lines were drawn for selection of the first new justice in more than a decade.
Bush has long been intrigued by the idea of making Gonzales the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court, according to advisers, a prospect that might seem especially tempting in replacing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the court's first woman. But a range of activists and congressional Republicans warned the White House against the move, saying they do not consider Gonzales a steadfast conservative.
"We would oppose him because we don't believe he has a philosophy that we can determine. We are not enthused," said Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for Focus on the Family, a conservative advocacy group. "He is someone who is apparently still developing his philosophy, and that's not good enough," Minnery added, citing Gonzales's "lack of open commitment to interpret the Constitution as it was written."
The surge of pressure after O'Connor's retirement announcement Friday reflected the brief but intense struggle that will play out in Republican circles in coming days. Bush leaves Tuesday for an international summit in Europe and does not plan to name a nominee until the week of July 11 at the earliest, leaving Republicans a short time to influence his decision. If the broader nomination battle will resemble a presidential campaign, as both sides predict, then the next week or two could amount to a primary.
While some focused on whom Bush's choice will be, others mapped out strategy for the period after he decides. Senate Republicans made plans to begin hearings as quickly as possible after the nomination, focused not on the candidate's positions on hot-button issues but on legal credentials.
A Republican planning document provided to The Washington Post described the need to avoid disclosing the nominee's "personal political views or legal thinking on any issue."
Democrats, by contrast, prepared a campaign to extend the process and portray anyone Bush selects as outside the mainstream. The liberal People for the American Way moved to claim O'Connor's mantle with a new television commercial that flashes her image and demands that Bush pick someone in her pragmatic tradition who "protects our fundamental rights and freedoms" or risk dividing the country.
Intent on preventing the other side from gaining the upper hand, liberals and conservatives spent the weekend in meetings, on conference calls and drafting talking points for Sunday talk shows -- and preparing for the wild-card possibility that a second seat would open if Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist steps down as well.
From Camp David, Bush consulted by telephone with Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. while lawyers at the White House assembled dossiers of candidates for him to take on the flight to Scotland, a senior administration official said.
Various activists and groups have lobbied for their favorites on the list of federal appellate judges under consideration. Appeals Judge J. Michael Luttig of the 4th Circuit is the choice of many conservatives who cite his sharp mind and sturdy track record after 14 years on the bench. The Christian Legal Society and other religious conservatives are promoting Judge Michael W. McConnell of the 10th Circuit, although his criticism of the Supreme Court's decision in the Bush v. Gore decision that ended the 2000 election recount left hard feelings at the White House.
Some activists also point to Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. of the 3rd Circuit, nicknamed by some "Scalito" for demonstrating the same sharp intellect and conservative views of Justice Antonin Scalia. If Bush wants a woman to replace O'Connor, conservatives have embraced Appeals Judges Edith Brown Clement and Edith Hollan Jones, both of the 5th Circuit. If he wants a Hispanic, they have recommended another 5th Circuit judge, Emilio M. Garza, instead of Gonzales.
Judge John G. Roberts of the D.C. Circuit, described as a front-runner by outside White House advisers, does not elicit as much enthusiasm from conservatives but has passed the test of key figures. "Everything I know about him would say he would fit that profile of Scalia and [Clarence] Thomas," said Jan LaRue, counsel to the Concerned Women for America, a conservative group.
Some conservatives yesterday advanced the strategy of naming Janice Rogers Brown, who was confirmed last month to the D.C. Circuit after a Senate battle. Having just confirmed Brown, activists reason, Senate Democrats would not be able to turn around and argue that she meets the criteria of "extraordinary circumstances" deserving a filibuster as defined by a recent bipartisan deal on judicial nominations. And as a black woman, she would be harder to vote against, these strategists reasoned.
"She's just been through the process," said Gary L. Bauer, president of the Christian organization American Values. "It's kind of hard to vote for her once and then turn around and say she's unacceptable."
The one candidate who unifies most conservatives -- in opposition -- is Gonzales. Gonzales occupies a spot on the innermost orbit of the Bush universe, having been a longtime adviser. He was appointed by Bush to the Texas Supreme Court, then he served as White House counsel before becoming attorney general.
Advisers both inside and outside the administration said Bush has not ruled him out for O'Connor's seat, although in his current capacity he is helping to direct the search, and friends say he is reluctant to join the high court, preferring the pace of the executive branch.
While Bush places enormous trust in him, Gonzales elicits groans and eye-rolling from conservatives who worry how he might rule on some issues and see him as another potential David H. Souter, the little-known New Hampshire judge put on the bench by Bush's father and who has turned out to be far too liberal for their taste.
Conservatives most often cite Gonzales's rulings on parental consent cases in Texas involving minors seeking abortions. Gonzales has publicly called Roe v. Wade, the case that established a woman's constitutional right to abortion, "the law of the land," once adding that "how I feel about it personally may differ with how I feel about it legally." Asked during a recent interview with PBS's Charlie Rose whether support for Roe would disqualify a prospective nominee, Gonzales said, "There are no litmus tests for this president."
"The only nomination that would cause the people that I really associate with consternation would be Gonzales," said Michael P. Farris, a prominent conservative constitutional lawyer. "The president's going to need all the help he can get no matter who he picks. I don't think many people in the socially conservative movement would openly oppose him, but the enthusiasm would be sufficiently dampened to the point that many would not participate."
Out of deference to a Republican White House, other conservatives are not as open about their opposition to Gonzales, using code instead, such as urging the president to pick another Scalia or Thomas, whom he has described as his model jurists.
"Conservative groups strongly believe that the president should just do what he promised to do. He was crystal clear on his vision of the appropriate qualities of a judge," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said in an interview yesterday. "He can't allow personal or short-term political factors to override his commitment."
Other conservatives have come up with a new line of argument to dissuade the White House from selecting Gonzales without offending the president. Because he helped fashion so many administration policies, they said, Gonzales would have to recuse himself if they ever came before the bench, including the highly emotional case of late-term abortions that opponents call "partial birth."
"I don't think the president wants to have a 4 to 4 vote when that comes up before the Supreme Court," said Wendy E. Long, counsel to the Judicial Confirmation Network, a group supporting conservative judicial nominees. "That's just not a good position for a justice to be in."
Yet some conservatives have resigned themselves to Gonzales. Robert H. Bork, whose Supreme Court nomination was defeated in 1987, said his friends believe Gonzales will be the nominee and that lobbying will not change that. "Already, people have been pushing various candidates, but I don't think that's going to have much effect on Bush," he said. "I think he already knows what he wants to do."
Bush advisers refused to discuss individual candidates yesterday but brushed off criticism of Gonzales.
"This is not the first time he has come under scrutiny," said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the selection process. "He's a well-centered person. His relationship with the president is strong enough that I don't think he worries too much about the chatter."
Indeed, Gonzales draws criticism from the left side of the political spectrum as well. During his confirmation as attorney general earlier this year, most Democrats voted against him, citing his authorship of detention policies that some blamed for leading to abuse of military detainees.
"We would have serious concern about Gonzales based on what we know of his record on issues pertaining to torture, executive privilege and his handling of death penalty clemency positions" in Texas, said Nan Aron, president of the liberal advocacy group Alliance for Justice. "On other issues about which the right is particularly concerned -- reproductive rights, civil rights -- it would be important for the Judiciary Committee to ask him to answer questions. It's very difficult to know where he stands."