GOP presidential hopefuls cautious in stance on Miers

Reflecting unease among conservative activists, some Republican presidential aspirants in the Senate are not ready to give their support to Harriet Miers, President Bush’s selection to succeed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court.

In a statement released yesterday — the same day Bush defended Miers in a Rose Garden press conference — conservative Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) not only declined to endorse the White House counsel but indicated he preferred a more-experienced candidate.

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Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) has declined to endorse Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court.

“I have said in the past that I would like a nominee with a proven track record on important issues to all Americans and whose judicial philosophy is well-formed. I am not yet confident that Ms. Miers has a proven track record, and I look forward to having these questions answered,” said Brownback, who is viewed as a leading contender for conservative votes in the 2008 presidential primary. He added that “we must trust but verify.”

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who is also considered a likely candidate, left himself room to go in either direction on the nomination.

“I look forward to learning more about Ms. Miers’s qualifications and discerning her judicial philosophy in the weeks ahead,” Allen said in a statement released Monday.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who ran against Bush in 2000, was more supportive than Brownback or Allen.

“If the Senate confirms Ms. Miers, she will be only the third woman to have served on the highest court of our nation. Her accomplishments demonstrate that the distinction would be well-deserved,” McCain said in a statement. “I trust that Ms. Miers will have a smooth confirmation process and receive a swift up-or-down vote in the Senate.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), whose potential candidacy could be hampered by two federal investigations into his sale of stock, told reporters Monday that he wanted Miers to be confirmed by Thanksgiving.

Much as liberal activists monitored the positioning of potential Democratic presidential candidates during the confirmation process of Chief Justice John Roberts last month, conservatives are closely watching the likely GOP contenders.

Many on the political right who hoped Bush would nominate a judge with an extensive and conservative record on the bench were disappointed when the president named Miers, who has never been a judge. But, according to one person in the pro-Miers camp, disappointment from the base is not tantamount to opposition.

“There’s a difference between a candidate that conservatives will reject and work against and a candidate that they’re just not going to get excited about,” the Miers supporter said.

Political analysts said Brownback’s expression of early concerns could help separate him from the pack among conservative activists.

“Brownback is trying to lock up the social conservative wing of the party, so he felt that he needed to come out strong on this one,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, where Miers received her undergraduate and law degrees.

Many conservative Republican senators issued statements like Allen’s.

“As the nomination process moves ahead, I look forward to reviewing Ms. Miers’s qualifications and her views on the proper role of the federal judiciary,” said Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.). “I am hopeful that the confirmation process will be both fair and civil.”

Sen. Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) phrasing was nearly identical.

“Harriet Miers deserves a fair and thorough hearing and confirmation process,” said Coburn, who, like Brownback, is a member of the Judiciary Committee. “I look forward to learning more about her qualifications and judicial philosophy in the coming days.”

The tepid reaction from social conservatives in the Senate reflects unease among their interest-group allies, who fear that Miers may not be as conservative as some of the sitting judges they prefer.

Bush sought to assuage those concerns, and others, at yesterday’s press conference.

“She’s eminently qualified. She shares my judicial philosophy. She is a pioneer when it comes to the law. She’s an extraordinary woman,” he said.

For the moment, the White House appears to be far more concerned about stoking Republican support than the possibility of Democratic opposition. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) suggested two weeks ago that Bush consider Miers. She is scheduled to meet today with Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

Despite trepidation among conservatives — and a frenzied post-selection public-relations blitz by the White House — many still predict a fairly smooth ride for Miers in the wake of a 78-22 vote in favor of Roberts.

“It’s a little overblown, in that the conservatives were not exactly pleased with Roberts either. But in the end he was the Second Coming,” the Miers supporter said.

For now, though, Republicans hoping to court conservative activists in 2008 are not rushing to back the president.

“They will have to make their concerns known,” Jillson said. “They’ll have to appear to be deeply troubled — at least until they hear some answers.”