Obama wins Round One on Sotomayor, but shows caution going forward

Most elected Republicans distance themselves from incendiary comments by Limbaugh, Gingrich, and others.

If the Obama administration was trying to set a trap for the Republican Party in nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, it could not have done a better job.

As an outspoken Latina, Judge Sotomayor has said plenty of things to rile up conservatives. Most pointedly, she once said that a “wise Latina woman” judge would “more often than not” make better decisions than a “white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Prominent conservatives pounced with rhetoric that many party members consider over-the-top. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich called Sotomayor a “Latina woman racist” and demanded she withdraw her nomination. Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh compared her to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Former Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado called the Hispanic group National Council of La Raza, of which Sotomayor is a member, “a Latino KKK without the hoods or nooses.”

Senior elected Republicans have sharply rejected the rhetoric and called for more focus on her record. But the first round of reaction to Sotomayor goes to the White House. Polls show more Americans approve than disapprove her nomination, and the out-of-power GOP is further mired in internecine warfare. Any Republican appeal to Latino voters, who already voted for Obama last November by a 2-to-1 margin, faces an uphill climb that has just gotten steeper.

“The broader problem that the Republicans have at this point is that as long as Limbaugh and Gingrich are the faces of the Republican Party, they continue in a losing situation,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “And so [elected GOP officials] were trying to pull them back, recognizing that Sotomayor was very likely to be confirmed, absent some stunning development.”

But now the White House is showing caution about the road ahead.

After initially reacting to the “wise Latina woman” comment only by suggesting a reading of the full essay for more context, Obama and his surrogates have suggested she regrets her word choice.

“I’m sure she would have restated it,” Obama told NBC News in an interview.

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Obama reprised his speech nominating her, touting her professional background and life story, with no mention of any controversial comments. He called for a “rigorous evaluation and hearing,” done in a “thorough” and “timely” fashion.

On Tuesday, Sotomayor begins her rounds on Capitol Hill for the customary visits with senators who will consider her nomination.

First on her list are Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the committee. A meeting with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky is also in the works. Sotomayor has already spoken with all four men on the phone.

The private, in-person courtesy calls allow each senator to look her in the eye and take her measure. But they are more than pro forma sessions; they provide senators with an opportunity to ask her questions away from the klieg lights of a hearing room, and allow them to begin formulating more nuanced views of her that can inform the public questioning that will begin this summer.

Already, some of the lines of questioning she will face are coming to the fore.

Her views on affirmative action are likely to be a major area of inquiry, as is her view of the role of judges. Aside from her “wise Latina” comment, her other most cited comment comes from a remark she made on a panel at Duke University Law School in 2005. She told students that federal appeals courts are where “policy is made,” a remark that conservatives are using to show that she is an “activist” judge.

Senator Sessions, one of the elected GOP leaders critical of the incendiary commentary from Gingrich, Limbaugh, and others, says he does not foresee a filibuster of Sotomayor. But he also has said in interviews that he’s not sure the Judiciary Committee will be able to make a decision by August, which is what Obama wants.

Senate Democrats are not assuming that Sotomayor’s confirmation is a sure thing. Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, chairman of the Democrats’ Senate election committee, has sent out a fundraising letter telling party faithful that “we have a fight on our hands” over Sotomayor.

Republicans are trying to change the subject. In the Republican National Committee’s weekly radio address, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) focused on energy legislation, criticizing what he called “a national energy tax imposed by Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s climate change bill.”

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