Christian conservatives leery of court nominee

Sen. Brownback's strong opposition to Miers is a setback for Bush administration


WASHINGTON -- Perhaps no group of supporters has been courted as assiduously by the Bush administration as Christian conservatives.

And no senator is closer to them than Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, who is exploring a run for president with their help.

So it was a slap in the face to the White House when Brownback, after three days of work by White House aides to reassure their evangelical supporters, emerged from an hour of private time with Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers and said he was prepared to vote against her.

"I still think there's a lot to learn about this nominee," Brownback said, citing doubts about Miers' positions on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. "I must do my own due diligence and I can't say that all these issues are overcome in a one-hour meeting. There's much more to go on it."

Asked whether he was prepared to vote against Miers, Brownback said: "Yes."

Asked whether he was prepared to vote against her even if the president pleaded with him directly, Brownback replied: "Yes."

In a further sign of discontent among the president's evangelical supporters, White House officials held a quickly organized conference call with several hundred grass-roots activists yesterday afternoon.

And the White House named a prominent former senator and evangelical Christian, Daniel R. Coats, to serve as Miers' adviser during the confirmation process.

White House adviser Jay Sekulow asserted that assurances from Bush and others had made headway in convincing conservatives that Miers would make a good justice. "The base is coming along, slowly but surely," Sekulow said.

Despite the pointed lack of support from Brownback and a few other conservative Republican senators, Bush's choice of Miers - his one-time personal lawyer who now serves him as White House counsel - does not appear in danger in the Senate, at least at the current time. But it has sparked deep unrest among evangelicals and some other conservatives, who worked assiduously to elect the president twice on the understanding that he would name well-known conservatives to the Supreme Court.

"There are a number of us who would have liked to have had someone who had a clear track record on some of these issues," Brownback said. "This may be a great nominee, but we don't know."

Paul Weyrich, founder of the Free Congress Foundation and one of the capital's leading conservatives, described the White House efforts to sway skeptical activists as intense.

He said Bush's closest political adviser, Karl Rove, placed four telephone calls over the weekend to James Dobson, founder of the influential evangelical group Focus on the Family. Rove convinced Dobson to back Miers, and then Dobson used conference calls this week with fellow evangelical leaders to make the White House case - but declined to offer details about why he was assured.

Others who have voiced support for Miers in recent days include Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and David O'Steen of the National Right to Life Committee.

The episode has opened rifts within the evangelical movement, Weyrich said, with former presidential candidate and Miers skeptic Gary L. Bauer openly challenging Dobson and questioning his judgment in backing her during one call. "I've never heard him and Gary Bauer argue," Weyrich said. "Normally they're big buddies."

Weyrich said White House officials have been "on my case" to support Miers. But Weyrich said he has not been convinced.

During 40 years as an activist, Weyrich said, he called Miers the sixth "trust me" nominee a Republican president has picked for the Supreme Court. In every other case - David H. Souter, Harry A. Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor - he said the trust was broken because, in his view, these justices proved too liberal in their legal decisions.

Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said yesterday that she hadn't decided how to vote on Miers, but was worried about early assessments of the nominee.

"I'm shocked at the sexism and double standard coming out of the far right," Mikulski said. "All of a sudden they're saying that a woman who was able to become head of the Texas Bar Association isn't qualified. They're saying a woman who was one of the first to head up a major law firm with over 400 lawyers doesn't have intellectual heft."

Maura Reynolds and Peter Wallsten write for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.

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