WASHINGTON – The news was about Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. But the story is about President Bush.

How Bush manages that story, by the person he nominates to replace O’Connor, by the words he chooses to frame that debate, by the way he deals with Congress, could define his presidency almost as much as terrorism and the war in Iraq.

And the impact on American life could last a generation. The most contentious, difficult and profound issues facing the country – life and death, science and faith, global commerce and crime – are likely now to be shaped by a court that has Bush’s signature.

The president, even with sagging approval ratings and diminishing support for the war and his handling of the economy, finds himself in an extraordinarily powerful position with Republicans controlling the executive branch and Congress. Now he will be extending that leverage to the Supreme Court.

O’Connor’s resignation was a surprise, to be sure, but not entirely unexpected, and yet it forces a different kind of decision-making for the president. In many respects, naming a replacement for Chief Justice William Rehnquist – considered far more predictably conservative than O’Connor – would have been easier, a judicial form of a zero sum game.

The argument simply would have been over whether the nominee was too conservative. And given Rehnquist’s failing health, Bush might get the chance anyway.

Replacing O’Connor forces the president to confront not merely judicial philosophy but also the court’s diversity. Bush’s support among suburban women has been ebbing since the election. And it is likely that, because O’Connor was largely seen as the swing vote that preserved abortion rights, the nominee’s views on abortion could become a central issue during Senate confirmation hearings.

If so, Bush would face unrelenting pressure from both sides of the divide.

Social conservatives have often felt betrayed by none other than Ronald Reagan (who appointed O’Connor to the high court) when it came to abortion. And though Bush has sided with them on nearly every issue of concern – from prohibiting embryonic stem-cell research to interceding in the Terri Schiavo case to winning passage of a ban on certain late-term abortions – the president’s rhetoric about support for a “culture of life” will now be put to an ultimate test.

He will face pressure from the left as well, with at least equal zeal, as liberals try to frame the debate as the ultimate fight over a woman’s right to make a choice on abortion. And he will face pressure from the moderate center, particularly in the GOP, that favors abortion rights but doesn’t really like a discussion of it in the public square.

It has been clear for some time that by a margin of greater than 2-to-1 Americans don’t want to see the landmark case Roe v. Wade completely overturned. For his part, the president has never specifically said that it should be, either.

“I think there will be a fight, because the partisans on both sides will be looking – on the conservative side, for somebody who’s really going to be pretty predictably in favor of dramatic cutbacks in Roe v. Wade, and those on the left who are going to want somebody who at least will think about what Roe v. Wade means,” said Drew Days, a professor at Yale Law School and former solicitor general in the Clinton administration.

To some degree, Bush’s decision is a gut check, and his thought process can’t be predicted.

“Tell me what he wants to be remembered as,” said Abner Mikva, a former federal judge and White House counsel under President Clinton. “If he is thinking about his legacy, I am a lot more comfortable than if he is trying to show how tough he is.”

Generally, Americans have paid little attention to Senate confirmation hearings on Supreme Court nominees, with the notable exception of the battle over Clarence Thomas in 1991, and to a lesser extent the fight over Robert Bork. But the tension in the Thomas hearings was over an allegation of sexual harassment, not so much over his legal views.

This time promises to be different because the political context has so changed in the last decade. The dividing lines have been more sharply drawn. The cleavage that was driven home in the 2000 presidential campaign, in which the Supreme Court ultimately ratified Bush’s election, has shown no sign of healing.

Interest groups are now far better funded and empowered by technology to try to shape the public debate. Both sides are stoked for a passionate fight.

The president might have a fight that he would rather avoid, despite all the strong signals he has sent to conservatives that their cause is his as well.

But if the sense of certitude that he has brought to his other decisions is on display with his choice of a nominee for the court, it might be a battle he embraces. From the day Bush took office, it was no secret that several of the justices were ailing and a retirement was almost certain. The president’s team has been war-gaming its options on the court for years.

The only surprise was that it took this long.

This president has never shown a propensity for caution. So for those who believe he would feel compelled to make a one-for-one replacement based on ideology or judicial temperament, another surprise might be in order.

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