WASHINGTON — After an initial burst of often personal criticism of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, some conservatives are scaling back their attacks and admitting that her judicial record is more moderate than her speeches that they've been trumpeting on talk radio, cable TV and YouTube.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich led the retreat Wednesday, saying he went too far when he called Sotomayor a racist based on a speech in which she said that a wise Latina would make a better decision than a white man would.
Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, while not retracting his description of the judge as a racist, later echoed Gingrich in saying that her long judicial record warrants more consideration. Limbaugh said he might even support her if he thinks there's a chance she'd oppose abortion rights.
The retreat came as Republicans in the Senate, as well as in some statehouses and elsewhere, balked at the incendiary talk, calling it a mistake to judge Sotomayor before her record could be examined or hearings held, and a political gaffe to offend Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing bloc of voters.
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Some of these Republicans were especially troubled that the attacks on Sotomayor, coupled with former Vice President Dick Cheney's attack on former Secretary of State Colin Powell and other moderate Republicans, could worsen the splits in the party and paint all Republicans as extremists.
This comes at a time when two elections in a row showed the American people turning away from the Bush-Cheney administration, and the prospects for a Republican comeback are clouded by polls showing the ranks of people calling themselves Republicans dropping to the lowest point in at least a quarter century.
Among the condemnations of Sotomayor in the days after President Barack Obama nominated her:
_ Gingrich called her racist.
_ Limbaugh called her a racist and "an affirmative action case extraordinaire" and likened her to former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke.
_ Former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado noted that she's a member of the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights organization he called "a Latino KKK without the hoods or the nooses."
Many conservatives, particularly lawmakers, pushed back.
"She should be given the benefit of the doubt. We shouldn't jump to conclusions, particularly with overheated rhetoric," said Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012.
"I will not use that kind of language," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold hearings on the nomination. "I think the right thing to do is ask what the law is and how she decided those cases and not use pejorative terms."
"The criticism from the right doesn't help the Republicans at all," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "The people who are already convinced by that are already in their camp and they're likely to alienate others who might be in their camp in the future.
"It's bad politically. It also may be an erroneous reading of what kind of judge she'll be."
In an open letter posted Wednesday on the conservative Web site Human Events, Gingrich said he was incensed by Sotomayor's comment that, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
"My initial reaction was strong and direct, perhaps too strong and too direct," Gingrich said.
"The sentiment struck me as racist, and I said so. Since then, some who want to have an open and honest consideration of Judge Sotomayor's fitness to serve on the nation's highest court have been critical of my word choice.
"With these critics who want to have an honest conversation, I agree. The word 'racist' should not have been applied to Judge Sotomayor as a person, even if her words themselves are unacceptable."
He noted that Obama has since said that he thinks that Sotomayor would use different words today to describe her feelings.
"In fairness to the judge, many of her rulings as a court of appeals judge do not match the radicalism of her speeches and statements. She has shown more caution and moderation in her rulings than in her words," Gingrich said.
Limbaugh on Tuesday said that Sotomayor's record doesn't reflect what he called the bigotry of her speech on how a wise Latina would come to a better decision than a white man. The one exception, he said, was a Connecticut case in which she voted with her court of appeals panel to affirm a lower court ruling against a group of white firefighters.
"Her decisions haven't come down as a radical," he said. "Her decisions do not give you something firm you can put your arms around that would indicate she is using racial or racism aspects to come to a decision."
On Wednesday, he noted that she's a Roman Catholic and that her record on abortion leaves open the possibility that she could rule against abortion rights.
Limbaugh said: "I can see a possibility of supporting this nomination if I can be convinced that she does have a sensibility toward life in a legal sense."
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