WASHINGTON - Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter warned conservative groups yesterday not to prejudge Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, whose name figures prominently in speculation about President Bush's choice of a Supreme Court nominee.
With Bush's appointment to the court still days, if not weeks, away, senators sparred on network talk shows about what sort of nominee Bush should pick and what the rules of the confirmation battle should be.
"I don't think the social conservatives ought to prejudge Attorney General Gonzales. Attorney General Gonzales may not even be in the picture," said Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican.
Conservative organizations are already mobilizing against Gonzales, a former Texas Supreme Court justice and close Bush associate, because of concerns about his opinions from the bench on social issues, including abortion.
C. Boyden Gray, who served as White House counsel to Bush's father and heads the conservative Committee for Justice, dismissed reports that his group is out to torpedo a possible Gonzales nomination.
"Well, I think they're worried about where he is on abortion and on affirmative action," Gray said on Fox News Sunday. "But I don't think that's going to be determinative. If the president wants to nominate him, he will, and he will be confirmed."
Specter, a social moderate, would not speculate on whether he would back a nomination of Gonzales - or any other name floating around Washington. Other Republican senators said that the criticism of Gonzales was unfair.
"Some of the right-wing groups, of course, are trying to push the president into getting the most conservative person that they can get. And they don't consider Judge Gonzales to be as conservative as some of the others," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, on CBS' Face the Nation.
"But I can tell you he's a person of integrity and a person of ability, a person with good temperance," Hatch said. "He's a very fine man. And if he gets picked, I'm certainly going to support him."
Republican and Democratic lawmakers pleaded for outside groups to tone down their rhetoric, at least until Bush has put forward a nominee, which is not expected until later this month.
"My reaction is that people ought to hold their fire and stand back and realize that it's President George W. Bush who's elected with the constitutional authority to make the designations," Specter said. "There's time enough to criticize after the president has made a move."
Gonzales arrived in Iraq yesterday on a surprise visit. He addressed U.S. troops in Baghdad and met with Pentagon and Justice Department officials. He also held talks with Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Democrats urged Bush to consult with senators before making his choice and to look at O'Connor's moderate conservative legacy as a standard for her successor.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Bush should nominate a judge who will be unifying. There are plenty of potential nominees, he said, who could win the vote of most senators.
"This is going to be part of his legacy, just as it was part of President Reagan's legacy when he nominated Justice O'Connor," Leahy said on NBC's Meet the Press. "We don't want to have somebody who's going to be there just for the Republicans anymore than we should have somebody there just for the Democrats. This should be somebody for the whole country, should unite the country."
Other Democrats were more blunt, saying that while they would be reluctant to attempt a filibuster to block a nomination, there are issues important enough to battle over.
"This is up to the president," Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said on This Week. "If he wants to pick a judge, we want to be able to support him. But if he wants to have a fight about it, then that's going to be the case."
That fight depends somewhat on whether Bush nominates a person in O'Connor's image, essentially preserving the ideological balance of the court, or chooses to placate conservative voters who were a key to his re-election by tapping a hard-line conservative jurist.
Bush has talked with Leahy and some other Democrats. But Republicans noted that the president does not have to reach out for advice, and that he said during the campaign that he would appoint a conservative jurist to the Supreme Court.
"He ran with the concept that he is going to appoint, as he has for the court of appeals, conservative judges that are going to not legislate from the bench, that are going to interpret the Constitution," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, on Face the Nation.
"So this idea that we've got to have a consensus candidate, I think, is ridiculous," said Sekulow, who has advised the administration on the nomination. "The president has the authority. The Senate can say yes or no."