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Republicans Tell Right-Wing Allies to Tone Down Rhetoric

By David D. Kirkpatrick 
and Carl Hulse


The White House and Senate Republican leadership pushed back Tuesday against pressure from some of their conservative allies about the coming Supreme Court nomination, urging them to stop attacking Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales as a potential nominee and to tone down their talk of a culture war.

In a series of conference calls on Tuesday and over the last several days, Republican Senate aides encouraged outside conservative groups to avoid emphasizing the searing cultural issues that social conservatives see at the heart of the court fight, subjects like abortion, public support for religion and same-sex marriage, participants said.

Instead, the aides, including Barbara Ledeen of the Senate Republican Conference and Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Sen. Bill Frist, the majority leader, stressed themes that had been tested in polls, including a need for a fair and dignified confirmation process, these participants said, insisting on anonymity to avoid exclusion from future calls.

Ueland acknowledged that he and others had been working almost since the vacancy occurred last Friday with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s resignation to persuade conservative activists to steer clear of divisive rhetoric.

“Every contact we have with these folks is ‘stay on message, stay on purpose,’” Ueland said. “The extremism of language, if there is to be any, should be demonstrably on the other side. The hysteria and the foaming at the mouth ought to come from the left.”

In other calls, emissaries from the office of Harriet Miers, the White House counsel, are urging conservatives to stop discussing individual nominees, especially Gonzales, whose views on abortion and affirmative action are viewed with wariness by some conservatives. Steve Schmidt, a White House spokesman working on the confirmation battle, joined some calls, participants said.

In an interview Tuesday in USA Today, President Bush said, “Al Gonzales is a great friend of mine. I’m the kind of person, when a friend gets attacked, I don’t like it.”

The disagreement underscored the delicate balancing act confronting Republican leaders seeking to rally passionate social conservatives behind a nominee while casting the candidate as moderate and middle of the road.

“The only ones who could make somebody sound extreme,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group, “are some of the president’s allies talking in an inappropriate way and themselves sounding extreme, which then gets tagged to the nominees.”

Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said on Tuesday that Bush had begun reviewing files of biographical information and legal background about potential candidates — more than a dozen. McClellan said that Bush read them during his flight from Washington to Copenhagen, and discussed the possibilities with his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr. His top political adviser, Karl Rove, remained in Washington.

More strongly than ever, the White House suggested that the timing of an announcement would play out over several weeks, with a nominee probably named at the start of August, in time for four weeks of background checks ahead of confirmation hearings that would begin after Labor Day.