WASHINGTON — It's a delicate chore. Republicans, seeing their best chance to make big points with the American public since Barack Obama won the White House, are trying to strike just the right balance in criticizing Sonia Sotomayor without alienating Hispanics and women.
For much of the day Monday, Sotomayor's first before the Senate panel weighing her Supreme Court nomination, that meant Republicans went out of their way to praise her personal story and accomplishments. They directed their fiercest fire not toward the judge but toward Obama and his comment — made before nominating her — that he wanted a justice with "the quality of empathy."
"The Hispanic element of this hearing is important, but I don't want it to be lost — this is mostly about liberal and conservative politics," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
He predicted that Sotomayor, who would be the first Latina on the high court, would be confirmed "barring a meltdown." He even signaled it might be with his vote, since "President Obama won the election, and I respect that."
Obama did so with about two-thirds of the nation's Hispanic vote.
Still, it's tough for the GOP to separate the judge's personal characteristics from the debate over her confirmation. The scene in the packed Capitol Hill hearing room reinforced that point. The all-white, all-male Republican contingent on the Judiciary Committee faced an accomplished Hispanic woman — who, on top of everything else, has a broken ankle that has her limping through Senate hallways and occasionally elevating her foot to prevent swelling.
So senators went hard after Obama while saying nice things about his nominee. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., was a case in point.
Kyl said he hoped "every American is proud that a Hispanic woman has been nominated to sit on the Supreme Court," but minutes later he accused Obama of being "simply outside the mainstream in his statements about how judges should decide cases."
And Sotomayor? For all her admirable qualities, Kyl suggested that she "may indeed allow — and even embrace — decision-making based on her biases and prejudices."
Republicans' statements about Sotomayor were designed — carefully — to suggest that far from being a victim of prejudice herself, the judge might be a practitioner of it on the bench.
Outside the hearing room, GOP strategists were more aggressive in making the point. Republican Senate officials sent out e-mail blasts — headlined "Confirmation Conversion" — that accused Sotomayor of flip-flopping on issues such as impartiality, the effect her experiences have had on her judging and adherence to the law.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee's Democratic chairman, opened the hearings with pointed warnings to Republicans. Criticize her at your own risk, he seemed to say.
"Those who break barriers often face the added burden of overcoming prejudice," Leahy declared, saying that the Supreme Court's first black, Jew and Catholic all faced racial and religious bias during their confirmation hearings. "Let no one demean this extraordinary woman."
GOP leaders acknowledge the sensitivity of their task. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the committee's top Republican, started the day by saying his side had to strike a balance between overreaching and coming across as mere decoration, a "potted plant."
Republicans argue privately that their only hope for benefiting politically from Sotomayor's confirmation hearings is if they're able to put Democrats from conservative-leaning states in a tough position for backing her.
To that end, they'll focus on charges by gun-rights activists that Sotomayor is hostile to the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. The issue is a powerful one for some voters across the political spectrum.
"Americans need to know whether you would limit ... the scope of the Second Amendment and whether we can count on you to uphold one of the fundamental liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Of course Cornyn, who leads his party's campaign committee and whose own constituents are one-third Hispanic, is as conscious as anyone that he can't come across as targeting Sotomayor because of her race or gender.
"Your nomination," Cornyn said, "should make us all feel good as Americans."