The White House has begun making contingency plans for the withdrawal of Harriet Miers as President Bush's choice to fill a seat on the Supreme Court, conservative sources said yesterday.
"White House senior staff are starting to ask outside people, saying, 'We're not discussing pulling out her nomination, but if we were to, do you have any advice as to how we should do it?' " a conservative Republican with ties to the White House told The Washington Times.
The White House denied making such calls.
"Absolutely not true," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.
But the conservative political consultant said that he had received such a query from Sara Taylor, director of the Office of White House Political Affairs.
Miss Taylor denied making any such calls.
A second Republican, who is the leader of a conservative interest group and has ties to the White House, confirmed that calls are being made to a select group of conservative activists who are not employed by the government.
"The political people in the White House are very worried about how she will do in the hearings," the second conservative leader said. "I think they have finally awakened."
"Absolutely false," Miss Taylor said. "Some of these conspiracy theories have risen to a new level."
The White House also said yesterday that Miss Miers will carry on with all previously planned meetings with senators on Capitol Hill and is still working to schedule new ones.
"They're continuing to work to schedule meetings," White House spokesman Jim Dyke said.
The Times reported yesterday that Senate Republican lawyers said no new meetings with Miss Miers would be scheduled -- at least until after the hearings.
A conservative political consultant with ties to the White House said the president and his political team once thought Democrats would go easy on Miss Miers, a friend of Mr. Bush's and his personal counsel. The theory was that Democrats see her as the best they could expect in the way of Bush appointments to the high court.
"But now Democrats smell blood in water," said the Republican, adding that he received a call from Miss Taylor seeking contingency advice on how to handle a possible decision by Miss Miers to withdraw her name or a decision by the president to withdraw the nomination.
"So there are some in the White House and some Republicans in the Senate who are worried the Democrats can now build a case that she is not competent enough or knowledgeable enough to be a justice on the Supreme Court," he said. "Really, that is the most damaging case you can build against a nominee."
The reason, he said, is that "non-ideologues would be responsive to that competence argument, and Republicans won't be able to argue that her defeat was ideological -- that the reason the Democrats beat her was that she was too conservative."
Meanwhile, Republican lawyers in the Senate said yesterday that while previously planned meetings with the Supreme Court nominee have not been canceled, the White House is not scheduling any more new meetings.
Mr. Dyke disputed that assertion, but refused to say what new meetings have been scheduled.
"I'm not going to give you names," he said. "We don't get into her schedule."
The Times reported that Miss Miers would attend two meetings that had been planned for yesterday but were rescheduled for next week, along with four others that already had been added to her schedule.
Miss Miers will spend the next two weeks doing "murder boards," mock hearings where people pose as senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee and question her as if she were at her hearings.
Republican lawyers on the committee staff have said Miss Miers' meetings with senators have gone poorly. That's why, they say, the White House has shifted its strategy from the private meetings to "boning up" for the hearings.
Publicly, senators on both sides of the aisle have said Miss Miers needs to spend more time preparing for the hearings.
Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, said Miss Miers needs a "crash course" in constitutional law.
One of the few on Capitol Hill who doesn't need convincing of her qualifications is Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican. He has known Miss Miers for 15 years and has been her most vocal supporter.
"When you take a look at Harriet Miers' career, what you see is a lawyer who has a breadth of legal experience unmatched by any justice currently sitting on the Supreme Court," he said yesterday. "She has tried cases, she has taken depositions, she has counseled clients, she has argued appeals."
Yesterday's calls from the White House, however, raised concerns about whether the nomination will last.
Leaders of several social conservative and pro-family interest groups have been conferring by telephone over whether to push hard for the withdrawal of Miss Miers' nomination.
Just who in the White House may have asked Miss Taylor to seek advice from outside about the best way to drop Miss Miers' nomination without causing excessive embarrassment to the president or to her was unclear.
Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove no longer appears to fill the role as chief political strategist in the White House, a role he has filled from the start of the first Bush term. Mr. Rove's clear leadership hand went missing some time ago, Republican insiders say, when speculation grew that he might face indictment in the CIA leak investigation led by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.
The eruption of conservative disapproval over the choice of Miss Miers surprised the president and others in the White House but not Mr. Rove, the insiders say. They say he has shown, in most instances, a keen sensitivity to the complex concerns of various interests on the political right that, until the Miers nomination, had been pretty much in lock step with Mr. Bush, even when they privately disagreed with him.
Republican insiders said the choice of Miss Miers, who has had no judicial experience, over a list of sitting judges with records of having written opinions on constitutional matters and who are conservative in their political views, probably was made by Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.
Some White House aides privately acknowledge astonishment at the administration's response.
"Who would have believed the wheels would be coming off this early in the second term, and with our own people firing at us?" a White House aide confided yesterday.