WASHINGTON – In searching far afield but finally staying close to home with his pick of a loyal friend for the Supreme Court, President Bush has shown no interest in picking a big political fight at the most difficult juncture of his presidency.

With his own popularity at a five-year low, his administration still rebounding from a catastrophic storm that put in doubt the government’s ability to cope with calamity and some of the White House’s most important figures awaiting the outcome of a special prosecutor’s probe of a leak that identified a CIA agent, Bush had plenty of reason to nominate a candidate for the Supreme Court whom he could count on to withstand close personal scrutiny.

With Harriet Miers, who has served Bush as personal attorney, campaign attorney and now White House counsel, the president has plenty of confidence in her ability not only to win Senate confirmation but also to keep him proud.

With the same trust in the inner circle that prompted Bush to tap Dick Cheney in 2000 as his running mate after Cheney led a search for vice-presidential candidates, Bush also has turned to the chief of his Supreme Court search. Cheney said he worked “hand-in-glove” with Miers in identifying Bush’s first court nominee, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.

If Bush had quickly grown to know and trust Roberts, he already had known and trusted Miers.

“He’s always been very focused on surrounding himself with people he trusts and people with the knowledge to handle the assignment,” said Don Evans, a longtime friend of Bush from Texas who helped him win the presidency in 2000 and served as secretary of commerce. Evans also worked closely with Miers during the president’s campaigns since Bush first ran for governor of Texas in 1994.

“He’s not only very comfortable with her,” Evans said of Bush and Miers, “she’s very comfortable with him. She’s very comfortable with taking the values that he holds important to the Supreme Court.”

Bush spent months screening and personally interviewing candidates for the Supreme Court openings created when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement July 1 and Chief Justice William Rehnquist died Sept. 3.

Bush chose Roberts for O’Connor’s seat, but when Rehnquist died, Roberts was renominated for the chief’s job. Bush first broached the idea of appointing Miers to O’Connor’s seat on Sept. 21, according to the White House.

That was the day when hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing the Gulf Coast before the arrival of Hurricane Rita, when the administration was facing troubling questions about its handling of the rescue and recovery after Hurricane Katrina and when the president once again was facing the lowest job-approval ratings of his presidency.

The results of the Gallup Poll that week showed Bush’s approval slipping again to 40 percent – a nadir that he had reached in August – and his disapproval rating had hit its highest point ever at 58 percent.

If the human cost of the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq already had taken a toll on his standing with the public, the financial cost of the Katrina recovery was threatening to scuttle his chances of completing a second-term agenda focused on tax cuts, tax reform and securing Social Security.

And a season of woes for Republican leaders on Capitol Hill – with the indictments of now ex-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and questions about Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s personal finances – could be reaching into the White House. A federal grand jury nearing the end of an investigation of the leak of a CIA agent’s identity has identified two sources for reporters – Bush chief political adviser Karl Rove and Cheney chief of staff Lewis “Scooter” Libby – though lawyers for both say they are not targets of the investigation.

Both Rove and Libby are part of a committee Bush appointed to conduct his search for Supreme Court justices. And Miers led that committee.

The president’s first meeting with Miers about her own possible appointment came as the Senate Judiciary Committee was about to vote for Roberts’ confirmation as chief justice. Bush held further talks with Miers on Sept. 28 and 29, as the full Senate was confirming Roberts. Bush finally offered her the job on Sunday over dinner with the president and first lady Laura Bush at the White House.

The Senate’s confirmation of the new chief justice marked the culmination of a peaceful and orderly process, and did not generate the controversy that critics of the White House had expected to face with Bush’s first appointment to the high court. The administration started openly expressing its desire that the next confirmation would proceed just as civilly.

“This is a terrific opportunity for him to have a fight he can not only win but also use to position Miers’ opponents as extremists,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. “If this plays out right, Bush will have played to the center with a female pick, the Democrats and liberals will excoriate Miers with little to back up their charges and the conservatives will rally behind their president and his pick.”

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