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Bush faces difficult choice on high court

With Rehnquist ill, search said to focus on three candidates

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's advisers are focusing their search for a new Supreme Court justice on a trio of candidates who could present the president with a tricky choice: Pick a reliable conservative to anchor the court for decades or name the first Hispanic chief justice at the risk of alienating Bush's base.

While the cancer-stricken Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has not publicly signaled his decision, many in the White House and around Washington expect him to announce his retirement at the end of the court's current term June 27, opening the nation's top judicial post for the first time in 19 years and setting up a potentially savage nomination battle.

White House officials have prepared for the prospect by culling long lists of possible candidates, poring through old cases and weighing a variety of factors from judicial philosophy to age.

No one can say for sure whom Bush might pick, but outside advisers to the White House believe the main candidates for chief justice are federal appeals court judges John G. Roberts and J. Michael Luttig, and, possibly, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.

For a time, many officials and analysts in Washington assumed that Gonzales, a longtime Bush confidant and his first-term White House counsel, had been ruled out as a candidate because he just took over the Justice Department in February. But in recent days, several advisers with close ties to the White House said Bush appears to be considering Gonzales after all.

If so, it sets up a delicate conundrum for Bush. A Gonzales appointment would be a politically appealing ''first" that could ease the confirmation process among Democrats and help expand the Republican base, according to some strategists. But many conservative leaders see him as too moderate on issues such as abortion and affirmative action, and a Gonzales-for-Rehnquist trade would effectively move the court somewhat to the left.

''He's clearly in the running," said one adviser who, like others, shared insights on the condition of anonymity. ''And that's an easy confirmation -- that's the easy confirmation."

While most Senate Democrats opposed Gonzales's confirmation as attorney general because of his involvement in setting guidelines for interrogations of detainees, he got 60 votes, just enough to beat a filibuster. The adviser said the White House senses that Democrats would not wage an all-out fight against elevation to the court.

Yet a Gonzales nomination could trigger internal dissension among GOP activists, some of whom have warned the White House against naming the attorney general. At a meeting of conservative groups last week to plot strategy for a possible Supreme Court nomination, one leader spoke out against a Gonzales appointment, according to people in the room.

''Some of the groups share that concern," said Jan LaRue, chief counsel for the Concerned Women for America, who attended the session. While she noted that her organization has not taken a position, she predicted that if Gonzales is chosen, some activists ''may not as vigorously support" the nomination, while Roberts or Luttig ''would certainly have broader support across the coalition of conservatives."

''Everyone in my circle crinkles their nose when his name comes up," another activist said of Gonzales. ''It would be a disaster if that happened."

On abortion, the most volatile litmus test issue for both sides in any Supreme Court fight, Gonzales has offered only certain clues. Conservative activists complain he was not vigorous enough in enforcing a Texas law requiring parental consent before minors could obtain abortions when he was a state Supreme Court justice.

On several occasions he has said he recognizes that the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion is ''the law of the land," while once telling an interviewer that ''how I feel about it personally may differ with how I feel about it legally."

Whether there will be a vacancy to fill remains uncertain. Rehnquist, 80, suffers from thyroid cancer and has appeared frail in recent months; some former clerks at an annual reunion this month told friends they were dismayed at his condition. Yet Rehnquist has given no public hints of his plans.

After more than four years to prepare, aides believe Bush would be ready to move forward almost immediately. But to avoid letting a nominee become a target for opponents during a long summer break, some advisers have explored whether it might be smarter to wait until late July or early August to make an announcement.

''The argument for doing it earlier is to get the name out and Congress can gear things up," said a senior administration official who asked not to be named. ''The argument against it is you have a long lead time and you leave your person as a punching bag."

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