WASHINGTON - After an initial burst of personal criticism of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, some conservatives are scaling back their attacks and admitting her judicial record is more moderate than her speeches, which they have been lambasting on talk radio, cable TV, and YouTube.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich led the retreat yesterday, saying he went too far when he called Sotomayor a racist based on a 2001 speech in which she said "a wise Latina" might make a "better" decision in a discrimination case than a white male would.
Radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, while not retracting his description of the judge as a racist, later echoed Gingrich in saying her long judicial record warranted more consideration. Limbaugh, noting she is a Roman Catholic, said he might even support her if he believed there was a chance she would oppose abortion rights.
The retreat came as Republicans in Congress and statehouses balked at the incendiary talk, calling it a mistake to judge Sotomayor before her record is examined in hearings, and a political gaffe to offend Hispanics, the most rapidly growing bloc of voters, when Americans have turned away from the GOP in two elections.
"She should be given the benefit of the doubt," said Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012. "We shouldn't jump to conclusions, particularly with overheated rhetoric."
"I will not use that kind of language," said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold hearings on the nomination.
Sotomayor returned to Capitol Hill yesterday for a second day of meetings with senators, staying mum in public.
She has used the visits to try to reassure Republicans and Democrats alike that while her background has shaped her worldview, she believes in following the law and would not let her life experiences inappropriately influence her judgments.
"I don't think she views herself as a judicial activist," said Maine Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, emerging from a long meeting with the judge. Snowe is one of seven Republicans still serving who backed her confirmation to the federal bench in 1998.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he was "deeply troubled" by "her ideology, record, and philosophy."
The White House dispatched Michelle Obama to defend the nominee.
Obama, speaking at a high school graduation, compared the judge's life story of humble beginnings and high achievement - Sotomayor grew up in a New York housing project and went on to Princeton and Yale Universities - to the paths taken by her husband and herself.
In an open letter posted yesterday on the conservative Web site Human Events, Gingrich said he was incensed by Sotomayor's comment 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."
"My initial reaction was strong and direct, perhaps too strong and too direct," Gingrich wrote. "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.
"With these critics who want to have an honest conversation, I agree. The word racist should not have been applied to Judge Sotomayor as a person, even if her words themselves are unacceptable," he wrote, adding: "In fairness to the judge, many of her rulings as a court of appeals judge do not match the radicalism of her speeches and statements."
Democrats said yesterday that Sotomayor had made similar remarks in 1994 but got no GOP criticism for them during the 1997 debate on her nomination to a federal appeals court.