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Is Miers' nomination threat to Santorum?

Conservatives upset with Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court say it could hurt Republicans running in 2006, including Sen. Rick Santorum.

Instead of putting Democrats on the defensive, President Bush's selection of his friend and White House counsel has fractured the GOP's conservative base, some of whom have gone so far as to suggest that he withdraw the nomination.

While that's unlikely to happen short of an ethical problem cropping up before the confirmation vote, conservative senators such as Santorum will be under pressure to choose between backing Bush and mollifying disgruntled voters on the the right who believe Miers is the wrong pick to replace Sandra Day O'Connor, the court's swing vote.

''It puts Rick in sort of an awkward situation,'' said William J. Green, a conservative commentator from Pittsburgh. ''The base has gone sour on the president on this.''

For Santorum, R-Pa., the choice comes as he prepares to run for a third term in what was already shaping up to be a difficult race. Recent polls show him behind by double-digits to state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., the likely Democratic nominee.

As the No. 3 Republican leader in the Senate, Santorum has been a loyal advocate of Bush's judicial nominees. When Democrats blocked several of the president's appellate court choices, Santorum tried to rev up opposition to the tactic by leading a round-the-clock talkathon on the Senate floor.

He showered praise on Bush's nomination of John G. Roberts, who was eventually confirmed as chief justice. But Santorum has been unusually quiet about Miers, saying only that he's looking forward to learning more about her.

Spokesman Robert Traynham said that's because Santorum was familiar with Roberts, having voted to confirm him three years ago to an appellate court seat. He said Santorum has never met Miers and spoke to her only once on the phone before her nomination.

''He's very cautious about this nominee because he doesn't know anything about her,'' Traynham said.

Political analyst G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster said there's no reason for Santorum to take a strong stand on Miers this early in the process.

''I think he honestly probably doesn't know much about her and given his polling numbers, he doesn't want to get into a situation where it backfires on him,'' Madonna said.

The main problem for Santorum — as well as the rest of the Senate — is that little is known about Miers' views on the hot-button issues likely to come before the court.

''It's the same blind vote they took on Roberts, but this one is even blinder because there's no paper trail,'' said Jennifer Duffy, who monitors Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Having spent most of her career in Texas as a corporate lawyer, Miers, 60, doesn't appear to have generated many records that would give the left or the right insight into her personal beliefs or jurisprudence.

Although that's a problem for Senate Democrats, it's a burden for Senate Republicans given the expectation that Bush would pick a nominee with impeccable conservative credentials.

''If he had chosen one of the excellent appeals court people we have — especially one of the ones who have been around awhile — you would have had a pretty good indication,'' said Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation and a leader in the conservative movement.

''Here, you've got no clue.''

For most of last week, the White House and its allies, including several conservatives who support Miers, tried to reassure the party faithful. They touted Miers' activities in her evangelical church and asserted that she would be a ''strict constructionist'' who would not legislate from the bench.

Even so, some conservatives are already predicting that Miers' nomination will undermine GOP candidates locked in tough races next year.

Unlike presidential years, which bring out casual voters, midterm elections are often decided by the intensity of each party's core supporters.

 ''How intense are you feeling right now?'' asked former Bush speechwriter David Frum on Friday.

Writing on the Web site of the conservative National Review, Frum said, ''The right nomination could help save Rick Santorum and [Ohio Sen.] Mike DeWine. This nomination could well demoralize the Republican voting base enough — in conjunction with immigration, overspending and the mishandling of Katrina, plus the continuing trouble in Iraq — to cost at least two Senate seats.''

Others who assume Miers will be confirmed say her effect on the election depends on how she votes on abortion, capital punishment, free speech, religion and other controversies before the court this term.

Conservatives hope she votes like Antonin Scalia but fear she might be more like David Souter, who has been an overwhelming disappointment to them.

Weyrich said the Bush coalition would ''absolutely implode'' if Miers sides with court liberals on high-profile cases. ''I think the Republicans would be in grave danger of losing the 2006 elections.''

On the other hand, if Miers proves to be a reliable conservative in the early going, it could stoke the base just as the 2006 campaigns are heating up.

But Santorum will have to vote on Miers not knowing any of that.

Santorum has already drawn the ire of some conservatives for his support of moderate Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2004 primary over then-Lehigh Valley Congressman Pat Toomey.

Toomey has since endorsed Santorum, but Green said not all the Toomey conservatives ''are back in the fold yet.''

If Miers disappoints conservatives, ''that's two strikes,'' Green said.

Most observers believe Santorum will vote to confirm Miers because of his loyalty to Bush.

''I think he's probably in the camp that trusts the president,'' Madonna said.

Duffy, however, said if other conservative Republican senators begin backing away from Miers, it could give Santorum license to do the same.

''If he wants to vote against her, he'll find a way,'' Duffy said.

After considering all the angles, political analyst Christopher Borick of Muhlenberg College in Allentown concluded that Santorum will be taking a political risk no matter which way he goes.

''There's no clear path,'' Borick said. ''If I were him, the optimum strategy would be to stay pretty low about it.''
By Jeff Miller, The Morning Call, Oct 10, 2005
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