Laura Bush said yesterday that some critics of Harriet Miers may be motivated by sexism, echoing an allegation that earlier infuriated conservative activists opposed to the Supreme Court nominee.
On NBC's "Today" show, Laura Bush joined President Bush in defending Miers as the "most qualified" person her husband could have appointed to the Supreme Court. She also said it's "possible" that questions about Miers's intellectual qualifications are sexist in nature, a charge other defenders of Miers have made publicly and in private conservations with conservatives opposed to the nomination.
Ed Gillespie, one of Bush's top advisers on the confirmation process, raised the sexism issue in a private meeting with conservatives last week, participants said, prompting hot denials that caused Gillespie to say he was speaking generally, not referring to anyone in the room. Since then, other Republican backers of the nominee have raised the possibility that Miers's sex is causing her to be judged by a harsher standard.
William Kristol, a conservative who runs the Weekly Standard and is a leading critic of Miers, said the first lady's suggestion of sexism yesterday is "obviously ridiculous" and indicative of a flailing White House strategy. "It is striking to me they are spending less time explaining the merits of Harriet Miers and more time . . . using liberal talking points to criticize the critics," he said. "I think it is going to backfire."
Conservative Web logs also were filled with criticism of Laura Bush's remarks. Jonah Goldberg, writing on his National Review blog yesterday, said the sexism charge "is horribly disappointing and the sort of thing I normally expect from left-wingers."
The sexism controversy is part of a broader pattern that seems to be causing raw feelings between the White House and its usual conservative allies.
Two with close ties to Karl Rove, the president's ambassador to the right, said White House aides are using private conversations to reassure skeptical Republicans by touting everything from Miers's affiliation with an evangelical Christian Church to the fact that she once owned a revolver.
In a transcript of a radio broadcast to be aired Wednesday, Focus on the Family Chairman James C. Dobson said that two days before Miers was nominated, Rove assured him that she attended "a very conservative church, which is almost universally pro-life." Dobson said Rove also told him that Miers had been a member of Texas Right to Life, an antiabortion group, and had "taken on the American Bar Association on the issue of abortion."
Dobson initially refused to recount the conversation, which has raised questions among Democratic senators, but did so after receiving permission from Rove. He added that Rove told him Bush was focused on finding a woman for the court, which he said may have cut the list of candidates "80 percent."
He said Rove told him the list of potential nominees was further reduced after "some individuals," whom he did not name, bowed out because they did not want to face a "vicious" confirmation process.
Kristol, who Rove called recently to defend the Miers pick, said he did not think Rove was deeply involved in the selection that has caused the biggest fight of the Bush presidency between the White House and conservatives. These conservatives said people close to Bush are saying Laura Bush was a driving force behind the selection.
Bush said that Miers will overcome opposition from some conservative leaders and be confirmed by the Senate next month: "My answer is, Harriet Miers is going to be confirmed and people will get to see why I put her on the bench."
A new poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center showed Miers faces a more skeptical public than did Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. The poll found one in three surveyed supported her confirmation, 27 percent were opposed and 40 percent had no opinion.
More troubling for the president: Only 54 percent of conservatives favored her confirmation.
Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this report.