WASHINGTON — While some prominent conservative activists are accusing President Obama's Supreme Court nominee of racism, more Republicans are telling them to chill out and "grow up," or they risk damaging the party's chances of expanding its reach to women and Latinos.
Members of the Republican establishment are trying to steer the debate over Sonia Sotomayor away from the battle cries of conservative icons Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, in favor of a more measured conversation about the legal philosophy and qualifications of the first Latina to be nominated to the court.
"I think it's terrible," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in a radio interview, condemning those who have called Sotomayor a racist. "This is not the kind of tone that any of us want to set when it comes to performing our constitutional responsibilities of advise and consent."
Limbaugh earlier in the week had branded Sotomayor a "reverse racist," and on Friday he compared her to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Gingrich, referring to the high court nominee, said on Twitter this week that "new racism is no better than old racism."
They were reacting to reports of a speech Sotomayor gave in 2001 at UC Berkeley in which she said that "gender and national origins" affect a person's judgment, and 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."
Former Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who dropped out of the race for the GOP presidential nomination in 2007, on Thursday threw another log on the fire.
In an interview with CNN, Tancredo accused Sotomayor of belonging to a group that was akin to the Ku Klux Klan, calling the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights and advocacy group, "Latino KKK without the hoods and nooses."
At the same time, the White House tried to defuse controversy over Sotomayor's "wise Latina" comment, with Obama addressing it directly in an NBC interview Friday.
"I'm sure she would have restated it," the president said. "But if you look in the entire sweep of the essay, she was simply saying that her life experiences will give her information about struggles and hardship that people are going through -- that will make her a good judge."
Obama added that part of a judge's job is "to stand in somebody else's shoes. . . . And so her, as a Latino woman, part of her job is going to be to listen to the farmer in Iowa and, you know, if he's upset about a farm regulation, and be able to understand how hard it is to farm, and what that means. And to be able to incorporate that into her decision-making."
Attempts within the GOP to find the right tone in addressing the Sotomayor nomination reflect that the party has no clear leader and is struggling to recover from brutal election losses. Some Republicans worry that fighting a shrill, losing nomination battle will not help -- and might hurt -- efforts to rebuild the party.
"Whether or not Barack Obama gets his nominee is not going to determine the future of our party," said Terry Holt, an advisor to George W. Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. "He's a popular president with the votes to confirm his nominee. That's not our best fight or our worst problem to deal with."
Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster, said: "Any kind of ad hominem attacks are not helpful to the party's reputation, certainly not in attracting independents, which is our challenge at the moment."
But some conservative activists are urging Senate Republicans to mount a vigorous opposition to Sotomayor's nomination in order to fire up the party's demoralized base. Waging an aggressive fight might also send a warning shot to Obama about court battles to come and highlight the differing legal philosophies of the two parties.
"It will help in uniting the Republican coalition," said Curt Levey, head of the conservative Committee for Justice.
Senators are the only ones whose votes on Sotomayor count. And Republicans in the chamber have been keeping their distance from outside activists such as Gingrich and Limbaugh.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) rejected their assertion that Sotomayor is racist. "I don't agree with that," he said on CNN. "And, frankly, I think it's a little premature and early, because she hasn't had a chance to explain some of these comments that she's made."
Cornyn, a member of the Republican leadership who comes from a state with a large Latino population, is highlighting the distinction between members of the Senate and outside critics such as Gingrich and Limbaugh.
"Neither one of these men are elected Republican officials," Cornyn said in his National Public Radio interview. "I just don't think it's appropriate. I certainly don't endorse it. I think it's wrong."
Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, on Friday offered the bluntest advice of all to Republicans. "Play grown-up," Noonan said in her Wall Street Journal column.