THOUGH HE DEFENDED Attorney General Alberto Gonzales against conservative critics, President Bush now appears highly unlikely to nominate Gonzales to replace retiring Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Nor is Gonzales expected to be chosen to fill a second vacancy on the high court should Chief Justice William Rehnquist or another justice steps down in the near future.

The president, of course, could change his mind and pick Gonzales. But a better bet now is that he will choose a woman, an option recommended by First Lady Laura Bush. Judge Edith Brown Clement of the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals is considered a possibility. Bush, who met with Senate leaders yesterday to discuss the court vacancy, is expected to announce a nominee by the end of July.

It is unclear how seriously the president ever regarded Gonzales as a potential court choice or if he was steered away from Gonzales at the urging of conservatives who want Bush to move the court to the right in its judicial philosophy. But the president is believed to have had reasons for not picking Gonzales all along.

One is that he just installed Gonzales in the AG job, one of the top four cabinet posts, a few months ago. Having already rewarded Gonzales with a promotion, he doesn't owe him another one. The elevation to head the Justice Department reflected Bush's great admiration for Gonzales, who had been chief White House counsel.

Another reason is that Gonzales hasn't proven himself yet in the AG job. He was confirmed, after a Senate fight, in January. It would be out of character for Bush to move Gonzales to a higher position before he had a chance to develop a strong record at Justice.

And one more reason is that the president doesn't need to name Gonzales to the Supreme Court to woo the Hispanic vote further. At least Bush doesn't think so. He is said to feel that his commitment to advancement of Hispanics is clear. His share of the Hispanic vote jumped from 35 percent in 2000 to an estimated 42 percent in 2004.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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