WASHINGTON (AP) – Criticism of Harriet Miers as an unqualified crony of the president is unfounded, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday, praising the Supreme Court nominee for a “probing intellect” that will make her a great justice.

President Bush earlier this month chose Miers, a longtime confidante who has never been a judge, to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Since then, Miers’ nomination has divided conservatives who support the president and those who say it was a risky choice because she was a blank slate on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

Three Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is expected to hold confirmation hearings next month, criticized what they called vicious attacks by the Republican right. They said Bush had made Miers’ confirmation more difficult by highlighting her conservative religious beliefs, which was seen as an effort to close a growing split among the GOP.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she remained open to voting to confirm Miers, citing in part the conservative criticism.

“The way she’s being beaten up by the far right is very sexist. People should hold their fire and give people an opportunity to come before a hearing,” Feinstein, D-Calif., said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

Rice said she has worked closely with Miers, the White House counsel and a former deputy chief of staff, on international legal issues such as a president’s wartime powers.

“She’s got a very probing mind and a probing intellect,” the secretary of state said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“She is the kind of person who is – if there have been four arguments given, Harriet’s going to look for the fifth,” said Rice, who was interviewed from London at the end of a diplomatic trip.

Referring to Miers’ critics, Rice said, “I think that when they get to know her in the hearings, in the confirmation hearings, that they’re going to see a woman of extraordinary talent, extraordinary integrity and somebody who would be an extraordinary Supreme Court justice.”

Asked whether she urged Bush to select Miers, Rice said, “I’m not in the habit of recommending Supreme Court justice nominees to the president.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, meanwhile, took issue with Bush’s emphasis of Miers’ religious beliefs.

“It’s going to make for a very difficult line of inquiry at our hearing, but we have to understand what she’s all about, what her values and beliefs are, so we can make an informed judgment,” said Durbin, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Bush on Wednesday said: “People are interested to know why I picked Harriet Miers. They want to know Harriet Miers’ background. They want to know as much as they possibly can before they form opinions. Part of Harriet Miers’ life is her religion.”

Durbin, D-Ill., said he did not think Bush “did her a favor this last week by bringing up her religion as part of the reason why she should be considered positively as a nominee.”

Sen. Joseph Biden, another Democrat on the panel, called the religious references inappropriate, saying it showed that Bush was desperate.

“I call that groping. It sounds like a man who is going down and decides to try to throw something to his supporters,” said Biden, D-Del., on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Feinstein said her questioning during the hearings will focus on whether Miers can rule independently and show a “breadth of knowledge” in topics including the separation of church and state, states’ rights and the separation of powers.

“This is a very pivotal appointment,” Feinstein said. “I’m more interested in her judicial philosophy, whether she is going to be able to be independent, whether she will be able to cut the umbilical tie to the president and call things as she sees them.”

Joining Feinstein on the program, Sen. John Warner said Miers was “highly qualified” and rejected calls from some conservatives that she withdraw her nomination.

“Let’s give her an opportunity to be heard before the committee,” said Warner, R-Va.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.