Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has been making the rounds of conservative groups in Washington lately, but key leaders remain opposed to putting him on the Supreme Court.
“If Mr. Gonzales is nominated, I will neither support nor oppose him,” said Paul Weyrich, chairman of the conservative Free Congress Foundation. “I can’t support him because of my constituency, and I can’t oppose him because I can’t hurt this presidency. I think it would be an unfortunate choice.”
As speculation swirled in recent weeks about a vacancy on the Supreme Court — and the potential that Mr. Gonzales might be nominated — the attorney general has met with numerous conservative organizations that have expressed reservations about him.
Although several conservatives said privately that Mr. Gonzales appeared to be lobbying for support, no one agreed to say that on the record and several people said flatly that Mr. Gonzales’ visits with conservatives are unrelated to the Supreme Court opening.
“Mr. Gonzales came at our invitation to discuss reauthorization of the Patriot Act,” said Todd F. Gaziano of the Heritage Foundation. “He’s the attorney general, and we were honored to have him.”
In addition to the Heritage Foundation, Mr. Gonzales appeared recently at a weekly lunch hosted by Mr. Weyrich, a weekly meeting hosted by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and other gatherings of conservatives. Mr. Gonzales also appeared on the conservative radio talk show hosted by Laura Ingraham and took a high-profile trip to visit troops in Iraq for the Fourth of July.
Although Mr. Weyrich said he’d intended to invite Mr. Gonzales to one of his lunches, it was Mr. Gonzales’ office that initiated the invitation to his weekly meeting. But, he said, Mr. Gonzales did not appear to be lobbying for anything.
“He said he felt an enormous sense of gratitude to people in the conservative movement,” Mr. Weyrich said. “He said he knows that they — the president and himself — would not be there without the conservative movement.”
President Bush again defended Mr. Gonzales to reporters in Copenhagen yesterday.
“I don’t like it when a friend gets criticized,” he said. “I’m loyal to my friends. And all of a sudden this fellow, who is a good public servant and a really fine person, is under fire. And so, do I like it? No, I don’t like it at all.”
The White House, meanwhile, named former Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, as the “sherpa” who will usher the yet-unnamed nominee through what promises to be a bitter confirmation fight.
One person who Mr. Gonzales isn’t getting any criticism from is Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who said yesterday that he would support Mr. Gonzales for the Supreme Court.
“Alberto Gonzales is qualified. He’s attorney general of the United States and a former Texas judge,” said Mr. Reid, who in February voted against Mr. Gonzales’ nomination to be attorney general. “But having said that he’s qualified, I don’t know if he’d have an easy way through.”
Some conservatives, though, remain adamantly opposed for many reasons.
The primary concern is a 2000 opinion that he wrote as a Texas Supreme Court justice about an abortion case. In particular, Mr. Gonzales helped overturn a lower court decision that had denied a teenage girl a waiver around the state’s parental-notification law.
“Thus, to construe the Parental Notification Act so narrowly as to eliminate bypasses, or to create hurdles that simply are not to be found in the words of the statute, would be an unconscionable act of judicial activism,” said Mr. Gonzales, using language conservatives say was unnecessarily harsh. “As a judge, I hold the rights of parents to protect and guide the education, safety, health, and development of their children as one of the most important rights in our society. But I cannot rewrite the statute to make parental rights absolute, or virtually absolute, particularly when, as here, the Legislature has elected not to do so.”
Conservatives see the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor as an historic opportunity to reshape the court into one that doesn’t read into the Constitution unwritten rights, such as those guaranteeing abortion.
A key question for any nominee, then, is whether he or she thinks that stare decisis — legal precedent set by previous Supreme Court cases — is more important than the strict interpretation of the Constitution.
J.C. Willke, president of the Life Issues Institute, said he heard Mr. Gonzales speak to a gathering of conservative leaders last year and asked him whether stare decisis would prevail in reconsidering Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court case that established abortion rights.
“This was a broad cross-section of conservatives,” Mr. Willke said. “When he said ‘yes,’ there was a loud ‘oooooooooh’ intermingled with some very clear ‘boos.’ That was as clear as it gets.”
James G. Lakely, traveling with the president in Europe, contributed to this report.