WASHINGTON — President Bush's best bets for filling a potential vacancy on the Supreme Court include six solidly conservative federal judges, each of whom has unique qualities that could make all the difference.
The president might choose, for example, a gregarious Texan with whom he might click personally. Or a courtly Virginian who has backed Bush in the fight against terrorism. Or a former Marine long viewed as a leading candidate to become the first Hispanic on the high court.
Speculation about who is on Bush's short list changes daily. So does the betting on when — or even if — an opening might come.
But with 80-year-old Chief Justice William Rehnquist battling cancer and eight of the nine justices over age 65, the White House wants to be ready.
Bush has gone about winnowing his list with trademark secrecy. That has not stopped interest groups and court watchers from feverishly ranking and re-ranking their lists of contenders.
Any self-respecting list, however, must factor in the all-important caveat that Bush has shown a great penchant for disregarding conventional wisdom in his appointments. Consider the selection of Dick Cheney as vice president on Bush's ticket in 2000.
"The president goes with his gut," said Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network, which is rallying support for the White House's judicial nominees. "He's not afraid to fight for someone he believes in if he thinks it's the right person."
The latest thinking focuses on six judges on federal appeals courts.
Not one is a household name. All are very familiar to observers who have scoured their resumes, writings and public utterances for clues as to how they would rule if they were named to the Supreme Court.
Three others circulating as candidates for the court are Judges John Roberts of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; former University of Utah professor Michael McConnell of the 10th Circuit; and Samuel Alito of the 3rd Circuit.
One name that consistently pops up is J. Michael Luttig, a Texan who was named in 1991 by then President George H.W. Bush to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Va.
Luttig, then 37, became the youngest federal appellate judge. At 51, he still has a boyish look and playful manner that belie his judicial experience on what is considered the most conservative of the appeals courts.
"I think the president would hit it off with him," Long said. "They are both from Texas, have a similar sense of humor and share the same judicial philosophy."
Luttig's father was killed and his mother shot in a 1994 carjacking in their driveway. The judge is known to be particularly tough on criminals, but he has rejected occasional requests that he withdraw from capital cases because of his father's death.
If Luttig were nominated to the high court, liberals would be sure to pounce on his role in helping Clarence Thomas win confirmation to the Supreme Court when Luttig worked in the first Bush Justice Department.
J. Harvie Wilkinson III is one of Luttig's colleagues on the 4th Circuit. The 60-year-old also figures prominently in Supreme Court speculation, particularly if Bush were to fill a vacancy in the chief justice's seat with an outsider rather than elevating one of the associate justices, such as Thomas or Antonin Scalia.
"There's something about the aura of the chief justice that raises the threshold," said A.E. Dick Howard, a Supreme Court expert at the University of Virginia. "I think the list gets narrowed if you're talking about a chief justice."
With his courtly Southern manner, Wilkinson has the gravitas and demeanor of a chief justice. He is known for a somewhat more moderate strain of conservatism than some of the other judges on Bush's short list.
But strategists involved in the confirmation process say there is some concern that Wilkinson is vulnerable to charges he has engaged in judicial activism from the right — using the courts to rewrite laws to his liking rather than simply interpreting them.
In a commencement address at Duke University's law school last month, Wilkinson seemed to be trying to allay that concern.
Not all "judicial interventions" are bad, Wilkinson said, citing the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling that integrated public schools as one example.
But he added: "What the past century suggests to me is that a call for the greater exercise of restraint on the part of the federal courts is not a rear-guard action but the vital vision for our future."
If Bush wants to make history by appointing the first Latino justice, Judge Emilio Garza of the 5th Circuit, based in New Orleans, is a leading candidate. Nearly 15 years ago, the first President Bush gave serious thought to appointing Garza, now 57, to the high court.
Strategists say the historic nature of such an appointment could be an important factor when Bush has a number of solid conservatives to choose among.
Garza would be sure to be questioned closely about his writings suggesting that the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion should be overturned.
Three others circulating as candidates for the court are Judges John Roberts of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; Michael McConnell of the 10th Circuit; and Samuel Alito of the 3rd Circuit.
Roberts has been given more prominence of late. Low-key, staunchly conservative and with a relatively short paper trail, Roberts is very much considered the safe, establishment candidate in Washington. He has generally avoided weighing in on disputed social issues. Abortion rights groups, however, have maintained that he tried during his days as a lawyer in the first Bush administration to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Others seen as plausible picks by the president, especially given his penchant for picking a wild card, include:
former Solicitor General Theodore Olson.
former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson.
Judge Edith Jones of the 5th Circuit.
Judge Danny Boggs of the 6th Circuit.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.
Lawyer Miguel Estrada, who withdrew his nomination to the D.C. Circuit when he ran into a Democratic filibuster.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, said he is confident that Bush would nominate someone who shares the president's conservative judicial philosophy.
"I like the nominees the president has put on the appellate bench and that will translate well to his appointments to the Supreme Court," Sekulow said.
Liberal groups already are voicing displeasure with virtually all of the names in circulation.
"Regrettably, the most often mentioned names certainly seem to be individuals in the mode of Justices Thomas and Scalia," said Ralph Neas, who directs the liberal People for the American Way.
"If you look at the last four and half years, the president's always chosen confrontation over collaboration. I hope he surprises me."