President Bush yesterday insisted Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers will be a conservative voice on the high court, as first lady Laura Bush said sexism is possibly playing a role in the opposition to Miss Miers.
"I told the American people when I campaigned for president the type of judge I'll pick," Mr. Bush told NBC during his eighth visit to the Gulf Coast. "I picked that type of person in John Roberts, and I picked that type of person in Harriet Miers."
"Today" show host Matt Lauer cited a story in The Washington Times that nearly half the Senate's Republicans are not convinced of Miss Miers' worthiness to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Mr. Bush said he had expected such doubts because Miss Miers has never been a judge.
"Just because she hasn't served on the bench doesn't mean that she can't be a great Supreme Court justice," Mr. Bush said. "She is not going to legislate from the bench."
Asked whether the nominee's detractors are sexist, Mrs. Bush, appearing alongside her husband, said, "That's possible, I think that's possible." The statement echoed comments by presidential adviser Ed Gillespie, who last week suggested that conservatives who opposed Miss Miers are elitist and sexist.
Conservative activists expressed distress over the White House tactic of questioning their motives.
"I have heard people say it's a slap in the face of conservatives, but the consensus -- and certainly my view -- is that it is sad and disappointing," said Christopher C. Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
"We've seen the White House and now the president and the first lady repeating things that their lieutenants have said that are the fall-back arguments of the left -- the questioning of conservatives' motives when conservatives are, in fact, questioning the nominee's qualifications," Mr. Horner said.
Some critics of the nomination say Mr. Bush missed a chance to pick an experienced judge with conservative credentials.
"I don't think it's fair to call us sexist or elitist just because we ask the question, 'Why did he choose her instead of so many better-qualified candidates?' " said Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals.
"In the president's view, he has chosen the best person he can find -- in the [Justice Antonin] Scalia and [Justice Clarence] Thomas tradition. But that remains to be seen," Mr. Cizik said. "I'm like a lot of other evangelicals -- eager to be persuaded. The Senate confirmation hearings are when we will make that judgment. Those hearings will be very critical for this nominee, I think."
Later yesterday, the White House stood by Mrs. Bush's assessment.
"As Mrs. Bush said, it is possible," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. She also slammed "the elites who have been most critical of Harriet, questioning her without finding out more about her."
Mrs. Bush, who has said her husband should nominate a woman to the Supreme Court, called Miss Miers a role model for young women.
"I know Harriet well, I know how accomplished she is, I know how many times she's broken the glass ceiling herself," Mrs. Bush said, noting that Miss Miers had been president of the State Bar of Texas.
Several Senate Democrats had urged Mr. Bush to nominate a non-judge, with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada specifically suggesting Miss Miers.
Mr. Bush gave the NBC interview while helping build a home for Habitat for Humanity in Covington, La. His appearance was mocked by the Democratic National Committee, which said he should have been "providing a plan for reconstruction instead of continuing with the photo ops."
The president said the reconstruction plan must be developed by local authorities devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"There's an attitude in Washington that says, we know better than the local people," he said. "I don't think Washington ought to dictate to New Orleans how to rebuild."
Turning to foreign policy, Mr. Bush predicted more bloodshed in the run-up to the referendum on the Iraqi constitution this weekend.
"I expect violence, because there's a group of terrorists and killers who want to try to stop the advance of democracy in Iraq," he said. "I also expect people to vote, which is a remarkable achievement."
He added: "Democracy is advancing, much to the amazement of a lot of people -- particularly people in the region."
When Mr. Lauer asked Mrs. Bush whether the war on terrorism and other events were taking a toll on her husband, the president interjected with a laugh that he "can barely stand" and is "about to drop on the spot."
"He's doing great," said Mrs. Bush as her husband pulled her close. "He's got big, broad shoulders."