WASHINGTON -- With legal and political insiders nearly certain President Bush soon will get to pick a new Supreme Court justice, conservatives close to the White House are quietly trying to derail the potential nomination of a top aide to the president.
Their target is White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, a longtime friend of Bush and a former Texas Supreme Court judge. Gonzales is a trusted aide in an administration that places a premium on loyalty. And White House sources have suggested that Bush wants to give the high court its first Hispanic justice.
But conservatives inside and outside the administration have long suspected that Gonzales, 47, does not agree with them on key social policy issues -- namely, their opposition to abortion and affirmative action. So when the Bush administration didn't go as far as many GOP hard-liners wanted in opposing the University of Michigan's affirmative action program this month, some blamed Gonzales.
That has led to an unusually aggressive "whisper" campaign. Conservative activists who have been successful in persuading Bush to nominate several hard-right candidates to lower federal courts have made it clear to reporters, Bush aides and others that they do not believe Gonzales is Supreme Court material.
The campaign comes amid speculation that at least one of the nine justices will retire this summer. Conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 78, appears to be the most likely to leave the court soon. Analysts say the anti-Gonzales chatter symbolizes the increasingly aggressive nature of the political maneuvering behind Supreme Court nominations.
"In my 15 years of watching the nomination process, I have never seen something so dramatic happen so early. This is a very aggressive campaign by legal conservatives to hurt (Gonzales') chances for the high court," says Ronald Klain, who was chief counsel to Sen. Joseph Biden when the Delaware Democrat presided over two Senate confirmation hearings. Klain later was a top legal adviser to President Clinton during two Supreme Court nominations.
The jockeying to influence Bush in the nomination process is important because a president usually wants to have a successor's name in hand when a Supreme Court retirement is first announced.
In recent weeks, Bush aides debated over what stance to take in a Supreme Court case that challenges the University of Michigan's system of favoring minorities in admissions. Conservatives such as Solicitor General Theodore Olson argued that the administration should not only oppose Michigan's program, but also encourage the high court to reject affirmative action altogether.
But Gonzales successfully argued for a legal stance in which the White House is opposing the Michigan program, but is not pushing for an end to affirmative action. That angered some conservatives, who are citing Gonzales' vote as a Texas judge against a law requiring teenagers seeking abortions to notify their parents -- without exception.
Conservative columnist Robert Novak focused on those Gonzales moves in a syndicated article last week. Novak questioned whether Gonzales deserves a seat on the high court and said conservatives were warning Bush not to commit a "grave political blunder," as they believe Bush's father did in appointing David Souter to the court in 1990. Souter has turned out to be a liberal on the current court.
Earlier in January, The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page challenged Gonzales to oppose affirmative action to show that he had Supreme Court timbre. Meanwhile, prominent conservatives inside and outside the Bush administration are increasingly -- but privately -- complaining about Gonzales.
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