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Sotomayor's Nomination Puts GOP Hispanics In A Bind

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With additional reporting by Laura Dean

The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has thrust one of the more compelling political questions of recent years into the political limelight: just how will the Republican Party win back Latino voters?

On the one hand, the historic nature of the nomination -- Sotomayor is the first Hispanic to be nominated to the Court -- compels the GOP to treat the confirmation with kid gloves. On the other hand, the conservative base of the party is yearning for a fight.

Retiring Senator Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), one of the few elected Hispanic Republicans, attempted to thread the needle in a statement released shortly after Obama announced the appointment.

"As an Hispanic-American, I take great pride in seeing the nomination of an Hispanic person to serve in this high position -- an historic first," read a statement from his office. "Judge Sonia Sotomayor's personal life story is one of great accomplishments and a source of inspiration; it also demonstrates the great opportunities our nation has to offer.

"The appointment and confirmation of Federal judges is the only time that the Constitution brings all three branches of our government together into one unified process. These unique opportunities require that all participants work to ensure the process is both fair and thorough. When it comes to judicial candidates, we ought to look at experience, fairness, impartiality, temperament, and knowledge of the law. I look forward to participating in a fair and thorough process as the Senate conducts its constitutionally-required examination of Judge Sotomayor's qualifications for serving on the nation's highest court."

On the other side of the coin is the response from the brasher wing of the conservative movement. Rush Limbaugh, for one, called Sotomayor a "racist" for discussing how her racial background affected her judicial philosophy and described Obama as a "reverse racist" for appointing a Hispanic to the Court.

"Here you have a racist," said Limbaugh. "You might want to soften that and say a reverse racist. And liberals say, of course, say that minorities cannot be racists because they don't have the power to implement their racism. Well, those days are gone. Reverse racists certainly do have the power to implement their power. Obama is the great living example of a reverse racist and now he's appointed one. You getting this AP, Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court."

Then there is Dennis Baxley of the Florida Christian Coalition, who echoed Limbaugh's concerns: "She's frightening," he said, "And she's racist." He quoted Sotomayor saying, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion [as a judge] than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Baxley added, "If I had said that as a white man, I would be hung out to dry."

Certainly, the nomination has the potential to expose some of the deep fissures over racial politics that exist within the GOP. And in the days ahead it will be telling to see just how other senators, members of Congress and varying interest groups handle Sotomayor's candidacy. That list includes Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who is running for governor of Texas; John McCain, who is up for reelection in Arizona; John Cornyn, who heads the NRSC; John Ensign, who hails from the heavily Hispanic Nevada; and Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio, both running for Martinez's Senate seat in Florida.

An aide to California Congressman Devin Nunes, another Hispanic Republican, said his boss had not yet issued a statement, but was pleased by the news.

"I know he's happy about the fact that they've chosen a Hispanic and a woman...t o diversify the court," said Andrew House, "especially coming from California; we have a large Hispanic population, probably the largest of any Republican in Congress."

UPDATE: John McCain, whose state has a heavy Hispanic population, applauds the Sotomayor choice and promises to examine her record "thoroughly."

"I congratulate Judge Sonia Sotomayor on her nomination by the President to be an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court," read a statement from his offce. "I look forward to examining her record thoroughly during the Senate confirmation process."

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