Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker who has called Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor a racist, backed away from those comments Wednesday but continued to question whether her philosophy qualified her to become the first Latino on the high court.
Gingrich had joined with conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh in calling Sotomayor a racist after comments she made in 2001 comparing the judgment of Latinas and white men were widely circulated.
In her 2001 speech in California, Sotomayor said: "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."
Conservatives seized on the quote to argue that Sotomayor, 54, is an activist liberal judge who would place racial and ethnic characterizations above the law in her decisions. In private meetings with senators, Sotomayor has insisted she would follow the law in reaching decisions.
In a letter to supporters and in a posting on his website Wednesday, Gingrich said the use of the word "racist should not have been applied to Judge Sotomayor as a person, even if her words themselves are unacceptable."
"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."
But Gingrich's change of heart did not sway Limbaugh. "I'm not retracting it," Limbaugh said Wednesday on his program.
"Now they may say 'Don't say it, Rush. Dial it back a little bit.' But nobody's saying I'm wrong," he said. "I mean, when she says that she'd do a better job than a white guy, what is it? It's racism. It's reverse racism, whatever, but it's still racism. She would bring a form of racism, bigotry to the court."
The use of the word "racist" rankled some Senate Republicans. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Republicans wanted a fair hearing and cordial airing of Sotomayor's views.
In television interviews Wednesday, Sessions said he was "very glad" that Gingrich had decided to step back from the term. "I think that will help us have a real good discussion about the serious issues that the nation faces and that the court faces," Sessions said.
But Sessions added that he was still concerned about Sotomayor's past statement because it raised questions. "It's inevitable that your personal views would affect your decision-making," he said. "And to me, that's directly contrary to our great history of blind justice in America."
Sotomayor, a judge on the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, on Wednesday had her second day of meetings with top senators in preparation for hearings on her nomination to replace Justice David H. Souter, who is retiring.