Get ready for a whole new Harriet. After a disastrous two weeks, White House officials say they hope to relaunch the nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court by moving from what they call a "biographical phase" to an "accomplishment phase." In other words, stop debating her religion and personality and start focusing on her résumé as a pioneering female lawyer of the Southwest. "We got a little wrapped around the axle," an exhausted White House official said. "As the focus becomes less on who she's not and more on who she is, that's a better place to be."
So, as the White House counsel begins her formal prep sessions this week for a confirmation hearing that's likely to start in early November, President Bush will hold a photo op with former chief justices of the Texas Supreme Court who will testify to Miers' qualifications and legal mind. The White House's 20-person "confirmation team" will line up news conferences, opinion pieces and letters to the editor by professors and former colleagues who can talk about Miers' experience dealing with such real-world issues as the Voting Rights Act when she was a Dallas city council member and Native American tribal sovereignty when she was chairwoman of the Texas Lottery Commission.
After enjoying the 78-to-22 confirmation breeze for Chief Justice John Roberts, congressional Republicans are now sweating the Miers vote count and tell TIME that it could be as low as 52--embarrassing but still good enough for a lifetime appointment. Lawmakers and staff contend that during her first round of courtesy calls, Miers had anything but a commanding presence, looking more like a prom date next to the confident Senators. Republicans said she seemed unwilling or unable to answer questions about whether she viewed particular cases as important precedents and said she offered little beyond banal chatter.
A White House that once appeared impervious to external stimuli suddenly seemed snakebit. Correspondence released in Texas included a number of gushing cards and letters from Miers to Bush--including a 1997 birthday card in which Miers sounded like a breathless teen in a fan letter, declaring, "You are the best Governor ever--deserving of great respect!" Every effort to right the situation only made it worse. Even Laura Bush--the President's safety valve in times of trouble--irked grouchy conservatives with a mild comment on NBC's Today show. Standing beside her hammering husband on a Habitat for Humanity lot in soggy Louisiana, she said it was "possible" that there was some sexism in the criticism of Miers. "It was insulting to the people who are trying to be the most helpful," said a discouraged conservative operative who has been going to the gym more instead of pulling all-nighters for Miers.
The day after his wife's stumble, the President took his turn, playing up his nominee's evangelical Christianity as part of her qualifications for the court. But then the message changed again. Press secretary Scott McClellan briefly dropped his sunny volubility and accused reporters of obsessing about the "side issues of religion," as if the White House hadn't been pushing Miers' faith. "We love you, Scott," a correspondent bellowed in singsong as McClellan finished his briefing and left the podium.