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Obama Pick Leaves GOP In Difficult Spot

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
It's day one of a weeks-long nomination process for Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's selection for the Supreme Court, and given today's political climate, the initial analysis of his choice is turning out to be quite positive. Because of this climate, the president clearly feels he has the political capital to get Sotomayor, someone that conservatives feel was the most liberal on his short list, onto the Court.

With his choice, the president pleased his base and Hispanic groups. Are there risks? Of course. But the risk-reward ratio weighs heavily in the president's favor. Barring any major issues that have yet to be uncovered about Judge Sotomayor, even many Republicans are resigned to the fact that she'll most likely wind up being confirmed.

The Republicans, however, will do their best to not make it a cakewalk.

And this is where Mr. Obama's choice of Sotomayor gets interesting. He's put the onus on the Republicans to figure out how to react.

Normally, the opposition - Republican or Democrat, depending on the president - would come out guns ablaze after the nominee, doing their darndest to tar him or her from the moment of the announcement through the confirmation process. And, normally, this tactic works in the opposition's favor; if they can't derail the nominee, at least they can use the partisan fight as an opportunity to raise money from their base.

This year is much different, and the nomination of Sotomayor "does create a difficult situation politically for the Republicans," said one Democratic strategist, who asked for anonymity because of their relationship with the White House.

Why is it different? Because Sotomayor is Hispanic and she's a woman.

Fully aware of the precarious political position the Republican Party finds itself in after losing badly in 2008, especially among Hispanic and female voters, Senate Republican leaders have urged their ranks to hold their fire, specifically asking them in talking points distributed last week and obtained by CBS News not to "pre-judge" or "pre-confirm" the president's pick.

The tightrope the Republicans have to walk on over the coming weeks: how to counter this historic nomination without alienating two important voting blocs, women and Latinos?

This, according to the Democratic strategist, is "an additional benefit" of the president's choice, making sure to point out that choosing a Supreme Court justice is a "special case" and politics was not part of the decision-making process.

A perfect example of someone caught between two competing interests: Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., who's balancing two roles as a Judiciary Committee member and the Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

He and the rest of the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee will be under immense pressure to join the blowtorching from conservative groups that will be doing their best to criticize Sotomayor.

However, as chairman of the NRSC, he knows more than anyone that any negative reaction to Republicans' handling of this historic nomination could have negative repercussions in the 2010 midterm elections.

"Therefore, it is imperative that my colleagues and members of the media do not pre-judge or pre-confirm Ms. Sotomayor," Cornyn said in a statement today, modeled after the talking points distributed by the Senate Republican Conference. "It is my hope that the process will allow her to prove herself to possess the impartiality, integrity, legal expertise and judicial temperament that we have come to expect from those that sit on our highest court. She must prove her commitment to impartially deciding cases based on the law, rather than based on her own personal politics, feelings, and preferences."

"We maintain and build credibility by approaching this with an open mind," one Republican strategist told CBS News. "Republicans are trying to take the responsible approach."

Ultimately, "It's going to be very hard for any senator, Republican or Democrat, to vote against her," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y said today.

But for those Republicans that do vote against her, that "responsible approach" may be their only strategy to avoid negative ripple effects from bucking the current pro-Obama political climate.


Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' Political Director.

  • Steve Chaggaris

    Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' senior political editor.