The White House, caught off guard by the intensity of the conservative backlash to Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, plans to try to refocus the debate over the next week onto her legal qualifications and away from issues such as her religion, senior presidential advisers said yesterday.
Acknowledging that the campaign for Miers had slipped out of their control, the advisers said they will seek to validate her credentials for the high court through a series of media appearances, newspaper opinion pieces and letters of support from various people who have known the White House counsel during her previous career as a corporate lawyer and bar association leader in Texas.
The effort, which got started yesterday with an endorsement signed by three former chief justices of the Texas Supreme Court, represents a shift in tactics for a White House that spent most of the week on the defensive talking about Miers's faith. Conservative leader James C. Dobson reported that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove had reassured him that Miers was an evangelical Christian and a member of a conservative and "almost universally pro-life" church, triggering criticism that Bush's aides were using her faith to send coded messages.
"We have obviously been distracted by discussion of her religion and an intramural dispute with our conservative friends," said a White House official who was not authorized to speak for the record. "But the senators are going to vote on her qualifications, and we've just got to get back to that."
The latest doubts voiced by a prominent conservative came from Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and the chamber's third-ranking GOP leader. Santorum, who trails a Democratic challenger in polls heading into next year's election, said in response to a question during a stop in Pennsylvania on Thursday that he had not made up his mind how he would vote on Miers and took a jab at Bush for choosing her.
"I don't know yet," Santorum said, according to an account yesterday in the Public Opinion newspaper of Chambersburg, Pa. "But I am concerned President Bush nominated someone who is a blank slate. I'm disappointed he wanted to nominate someone like that instead of someone with a record."
Usually closely aligned with the party's conservative base, the White House has been struggling to defuse the hostility to the Miers nomination among activists, lawyers and pundits. "I'm a little surprised that they came out of the box so cynically," White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. said in a C-SPAN interview made public yesterday. Card, who was central to the Miers selection, said he accepted responsibility for any mishandling. "I am glad to carry the blame," he said.
In the interview, which was taped Thursday and will be aired tomorrow, Card denied an account by the American Spectator that he had to shout down opposition to Miers in staff meetings. "That is fiction," he said, "and I live in a nonfiction world." And he rejected calls to withdraw the nomination. "Too many people have rushed to a judgment without having had an opportunity to know Harriet Miers."
White House officials mapped out a strategy to regroup for the next week. Miers, who has already visited 16 senators, will return to Capitol Hill while surrogates fan out to vouch for her. "We have a plan to emphasize her experience, her integrity . . . and her qualifications for the Supreme Court and getting something out there pretty much every day on that," said the White House official.
Another senior official said the campaign will focus on the Senate. "We just can't be distracted or pulled off our objective of making the case on qualifications by engaging in other debates, as tempting as that might be," the official said.
Bush plans to host former judges from Texas at the White House on Monday to highlight their support of Miers. "Together we represent 34 years of experience on the Texas Supreme Court," former state chief justices Joe R. Greenhill, John L. Hill Jr. and Thomas R. Phillips wrote in a letter sent to the Senate yesterday. "We feel confident that we know what it takes to be a justice -- Harriet Miers exceeds that mark."