WASHINGTON -- Criticism of Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers as a crony of the president is unfounded, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday, praising Miers as having a ''probing intellect."
President Bush earlier this month chose Miers, an aide who has never been a judge, to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Since then, Miers's nomination has divided conservatives who support the president and those who say it was a risky choice because her views were not known on issues such as abortion and gay rights.
Three Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which plans to hold hearings next month, said there had been vicious attacks by the Republican right.
They said Bush had made Miers's confirmation more difficult by highlighting her conservative religious beliefs -- move that was seen as an effort to close a growing split among the GOP.
Senator Dianne Feinstein said she remained open to voting to confirm Miers, citing in part the conservative criticism. ''The way she's being beaten up by the far right is very sexist," Feinstein, Democrat of California, said on the CNN program ''Late Edition."
''People should hold their fire and give people an opportunity to come before a hearing," Feinstein said.
Rice said she has worked closely with Miers, the White House counsel and a former deputy chief of staff, on international legal issues such as a president's wartime powers. ''She's got a very probing mind and a probing intellect," Rice said on ''Fox News Sunday."
''She is the kind of person who is -- if there have been four arguments given, Harriet's going to look for the fifth," said Rice, who was interviewed from London at the end of a diplomatic trip.
Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, took issue with Bush's emphasis on Miers's religious beliefs.
''It's going to make for a very difficult line of inquiry at our hearing, but we have to understand what she's all about," said Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who serves on the Judiciary Committee.
Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat who also serves on the panel, called the religious references inappropriate, saying they showed that Bush is desperate. ''It sounds like a man who is going down and decides to try to throw something to his supporters," Biden said on the CBS program ''Face the Nation."
Feinstein said her questioning will focus on whether Miers can rule independently, and whether she can show a ''breadth of knowledge" in topics such as the separation of church and state, states' rights, and the separation of powers among executive, judiciary, and legislative branches.