WASHINGTON — Since the introduction last week of Sonia Sotomayor, Republican senators wary of attacking the first Latino Supreme Court nominee have lashed out at conservatives in their party who branded the would-be justice a racist and have even predicted a smooth confirmation.
But several of those same GOP senators said Sunday that they would now make race a focus of the Sotomayor nomination fight -- and they were far less eager to criticize conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich for their racially tinged critiques.
Fanning out across network television talk shows, the senators in essence pledged to ask a fundamental question: Can a woman who says her views are shaped by her Puerto Rican heritage and humble beginnings make fair decisions when it comes to all races and social classes?
"We need to know, for example, whether she's going to be a justice for all of us or just a justice for a few of us," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee, speaking on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."
Days earlier, Cornyn said in a radio interview that it was "terrible" for conservatives to be attacking Sotomayor as a racist. He did not reiterate those sentiments Sunday and pledged that he and other Republican lawmakers would investigate Sotomayor's past comments and rulings to judge her fairness.
Cornyn's comments were echoed in appearances by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.); Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee; and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), another member of the panel that will conduct hearings.
McConnell refused to repudiate Limbaugh, Gingrich and other conservatives who have called Sotomayor a racist, telling CNN that they were "entitled to their opinions." He said he had "better things to do than be the speech police over people who are going to have their views about a very important appointment."
Sessions, asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" whether he agreed that Sotomayor was a racist, said he would "not use those words," but he added: "I think that she is a person who believes that her background can influence her decision. That's what troubles me."
Kyl did not respond directly when asked whether he thought Sotomayor was a racist. "I'm not going to get drawn into characterizations before I have even met her," he told CBS' "Face the Nation."
At issue is a 2001 statement in which Sotomayor expressed 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."
The senators also promised to question Sotomayor about a recent appellate ruling in which she rejected a discrimination claim by white firefighters in Connecticut.
"By ignoring a genuine constitutional issue about reverse discrimination in the New Haven firefighter case, you know, the comments she made about the quality of her decisions being better than those of a white male -- I mean, we need to go further into her record to see whether this is a trend, or whether these are isolated and explainable events," Cornyn said.
McConnell cited the firefighter case to suggest that Sotomayor might be inclined to side with any underdog no matter what the law might require.
"You know, every federal judge raises his or her right hand and swears to treat the rich and the poor the same. But what that really means is that, if a rich person has both the law and the facts on their side in a court case, they ought to win," McConnell said.
Sotomayor's defenders say the line has been taken out of context and that she was merely making the point that any judge's outlook is shaped by his or her experiences, just as conservative Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Antonin Scalia have pointed to the discrimination felt by their Italian ancestors as having an effect on them.
But the GOP senators' new tone underscored a sense in the party that Sotomayor's history of speaking about her Puerto Rican heritage had emerged as a surprisingly effective line of attack -- particularly as President Obama and other Democrats try to shore up their support among working-class white voters.
It is an unwelcome development for Obama, who as the country's first black president has tried to de-emphasize race as part of his efforts to win broad public appeal and avoid the marginalization that has defined many African American politicians in the past.
The president on Friday took the unusual step of suggesting that his nominee had chosen her words poorly, telling NBC that he was "sure she would have restated it," even as he defended her and called the Republican criticism "nonsense."
There is no indication that Sotomayor's confirmation is in jeopardy.
Many Republican strategists worry that the party risks further alienating Latino voters, many of whom fled the GOP over the last three years after conservatives used harsh rhetoric to block immigration legislation.
And early analyses of her judicial opinions -- most notably one released Friday by the respected legal website SCOTUSblog -- undercut the attacks on Sotomayor as a judge more interested in boosting minorities by showing that the vast majority of her rulings rejected claims of discrimination by minorities.