WASHINGTON - Judge Sonia Sotomayor yesterday countered Republican charges that she would let her background dictate her rulings as Americans signaled a favorable first impression of President Obama's first Supreme Court choice.

A new Associated Press-GfK poll suggested that Americans have a more positive view of her than they did of any of former President George W. Bush's nominees to the high court. Half backed her confirmation.

As Sotomayor made her Senate debut with a series of private meetings, Republicans said they would prefer holding hearings on her nomination in September, which could cloud the speedy summertime confirmation Obama wants.

Sotomayor, who would be the high court's first Hispanic and its third woman, told senators she would follow the law as a judge without letting her life experiences inappropriately influence her decisions.

"Ultimately and completely, a judge has to follow the law no matter what their upbringing has been," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee chairman, quoted the nominee as saying in their closed-door session.

Republicans are questioning how she would apply the law, noting her remark in 2001 that she hoped her decisions as a "wise Latina" would be better than those of a white male who hadn't had the same experiences. Obama has said she misspoke; some Republicans have called the comment racist.

Leahy, hoping to shepherd a smooth and quick confirmation for Sotomayor, asked her what she meant by her 2001 comment and said the judge told him: "Of course one's life experience shapes who you are, but . . . as a judge, you follow the law."

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the committee, said Sotomayor used similar words with him as well, but he appeared to come away from the meetings unconvinced about her approach and whether she would be an "activist" who tried to set policy from the bench.

"We talked about the idea and the concept of personal feelings and . . . how that influences a decision, and how it should not," Sessions said, declining to elaborate on the private discussion. Sessions, who was to meet today with Leahy to discuss scheduling Sotomayor's confirmation proceedings, said he thought hearings should wait until September - more than a month after Obama and Senate Democrats had hoped to have Sotomayor confirmed.

The exchanges came as Sotomayor rushed from one hotly anticipated meeting to another on Capitol Hill - 10 in all - visiting senators who will decide her future. She meets 10 more today.

In the new poll, half said she should be seated on the court while 22 percent opposed her confirmation. About a third had a favorable view of Sotomayor while 18 percent viewed her unfavorably.

Questioned about affirmative action, 63 percent support it for women and 56 percent favor affirmative action for racial or ethnic minorities. The poll did not define affirmative action.

She was looked upon more positively than any of three Supreme Court nominees Bush put forward over four months in 2005: Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito and Harriet Miers, who withdrew from consideration.

Roberts, the most popular of the three in polling at the time, was supported for confirmation by 47 percent, and 25 percent had a favorable impression of him. *