Within hours of the death Saturday of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, leaders of some social conservative groups began to signal their adamant opposition to the possible selection of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to replace him.
Most leaders on the right were careful to avoid publicly criticizing Gonzales for fear of angering President Bush. The conservatives privately expressed determination, however, to communicate their concerns that the attorney general does not share their views on abortion and affirmative action.
Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum and author of "The Supremacists: The Tyranny of Judges -- and How to Stop It," said nominating Gonzales would "be a betrayal by the president."
Schlafly said that at a closed 2002 meeting of the Council on National Policy, Gonzales told attendees that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision upholding the right to abortion, is the law of the land and that he supports it. Another prominent conservative at the meeting said Gonzales "was deeply disappointing. He blew it."
Liberal advocacy groups were not yet focused on a particular candidate, and instead urged Bush to pick a moderate who would not ignite a partisan fight. With the nation shocked by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and increasingly polarized by the war in Iraq, they said, the country could ill afford a divisive battle over a second Supreme Court nominee.
"It is more important than ever to come up with a consensus candidate everyone can respect," said Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.
Many Christian conservative organizations deflected inquiries about Gonzales by saying they expect Bush to appoint what they consider a "strict constructionist," in the mold of associate justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
At a news conference yesterday afternoon, Cathy Cleaver Ruse, senior fellow for legislative studies at the conservative Family Research Council, said, "I don't think today is a day to speculate."
Conservatives criticized Gonzales in July when he was considered a leading candidate to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who had announced her plans to retire. At the time, Bush moved quickly to silence the attacks, declaring: "I don't like it when a friend gets criticized. I'm loyal to my friends."
One of the more outspoken critics of Gonzales said a Bush aide warned him: " 'You are really making the president angry, and he may just go ahead and appoint Gonzales.' Far be it for me to do something inadvertently."
One economic conservative group closely aligned with the White House, Progress for America, announced that it will back Gonzales if he is chosen: "It is the president's obligation to nominate whomever he sees fit, and if that's Attorney General Gonzales, Progress for America will defend that nomination."
Some liberal leaders speculated that the president's low poll ratings, coupled with the calamity still unfolding from the hurricane, would pull the president toward a compromise candidate. Others were doubtful.
"The president has an important challenge and opportunity," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "He can choose a nominee who will unite the country in support of fundamental American rights and freedoms, or he can choose a judicial activist who can dramatically change the court's direction. I pray for the former but I expect the latter."
Leaders of several liberal groups called on the Senate to postpone briefly the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr., which are scheduled to begin on Tuesday. Holding hearings this week, they said, would not allow for the close public scrutiny that is warranted, given the attention being devoted to the hurricane recovery and Rehnquist's death.