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Newcomers on Right Key to Miers’ Fate?

Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers faces a critical test in meetings this week with a handful of conservative Senate Republicans who are relative newcomers to the chamber but could have a great deal to say about her prospects for confirmation.

Those Senators — a group that includes George Allen (Va.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Ensign (Nev.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.) and David Vitter (La.) — are representative of a large bloc of votes in the Republican Conference, most of whom were elected to office in campaigns based at least in part on pushing conservative jurists.

That group has, to date, been among the most tepid in their support for the controversial nomination, distancing themselves from the pick and sometimes voicing open displeasure with the fact that President Bush’s selection has led to internal fighting among conservatives.

No one among the group of Senate conservatives has openly announced opposition to Miers, but neither are they voicing ringing endorsements, making this week’s meetings all the more critical, particularly for Senators such as Allen, Ensign and Vitter who don’t sit on the Judiciary Committee and won’t witness her performance at the hearings in person.

Some of the newer Republicans who have met with Miers remain neutral on the nomination, including Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who talked to Miers last Tuesday. Coming out of the weekly luncheon, Thune voiced some optimism that almost all Republicans were likely to take a wait-and-see attitude toward Miers. But Thune left open the possibility that a subpar hearing performance could prove to be decisive for many conservatives, no matter how many friends and supporters speak out on her behalf.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to her ability to make the sale,” said Thune, elected last year in a race in which he pilloried then Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) “obstruction” on issues such as judicial nominations.

Combined, there are 21 Senate Republicans who have been elected to the chamber since 1998, making them more than a third of the entire Conference.

None of those 21 Republicans has ever served with former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who was picked by the White House to serve as its official emissary to the Senate during the Miers nomination. Coats retired at the end of 1998.

One veteran Senator said there was “very little” talk about Miers at the Tuesday luncheon, although Coats gave a brief pep talk about the nomination that the lawmaker said received a lukewarm response from the Conference.

On Monday, Miers met with Coburn, who released a neutral statement characterizing their meeting as “cordial” but adding little else about the nominee. One of the most conservative Members of the Senate, Coburn has since refused to elaborate on his views about the nominee and insisted that no one will publicly know his thoughts until the hearings open Nov. 7. Unlike four other conservatives Miers is meeting this week, Coburn sits on Judiciary and will witness her firsthand at the hearings.

On Tuesday, Miers met individually with Ensign and Isakson. After his 45-minute meeting, Ensign, elected in 1998, briefly talked to reporters outside his office but gave no endorsement of the nominee.

This morning, Miers is slated for a session with Vitter, who issued a release last week stating he had to be reassured she had the right credentials to win his confirmation vote. And Thursday, Miers is tentatively scheduled to meet with Allen, who won office in 2000 and ran the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2004 cycle, helping elect the likes of Coburn, Thune and Vitter.

Allen, a potential presidential contender in 2008, made the judicial confirmation process a centerpiece of the Senate campaigns last year, contending that Democratic filibusters of Bush’s nominees amounted to obstruction.

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