WASHINGTON – A senior administration official on Friday sought to clarify remarks by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that have been described as being at odds with President Bush's amicus brief opposing the University of Michigan's race-based admissions policy.
The official said Rice's views of race-based admissions policies have been misinterpreted and that she does indeed support the president's decision to oppose the school's points system, which heavily rewards minority applicants.
Rice "could not be more supportive of what the president did and the way that he did it in the strong statement that he made about the importance of educational diversity with racial diversity as an element," said the official, identified as close to Rice's thinking.
The official said Rice, a former provost at Stanford University, does believe that race can be considered as one factor among others if more race-neutral means of achieving diversity are not working.
Rice has been portrayed as troubled by the president's decision to oppose the race-based admissions policy at the University of Michigan, which is coming under review by the Supreme Court.
After a report in the Washington Post on Friday depicted her as successfully trying to convince the president that favoring minorities is not an effective way of improving diversity on college campuses, Rice sought to clear up the suggestion by issuing a written statement Friday morning.
It only seemed to complicate the matter.
In her five-sentence public statement, Rice, among the highest-ranked African Americans ever to serve in government, wrote, "I agree with the president's position, which emphasizes the need for diversity and recognizes the continued legacy of racial prejudice, and the need to fight it. The president challenged universities to develop ways to diversify their populations fully. I believe that while race neutral means are preferable, it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body."
Talking to the American Urban Radio Network, Rice said she agreed that affirmative action is needed "if it does not lead to quotas."
"My own personal view is that there are circumstances in which it is necessary to use race as a factor among many factors in diversifying a college class," she told the network "And so I've been a supporter of affirmative action that is not quota based and that does not seek to make race the only factor, but that considers race as one of many factors."
In a narrowly tailored brief submitted to the Supreme Court Thursday, the president's lawyers argued that the University of Michigan's admissions system fails the constitutional test of equal protection for all and ignores race-neutral alternatives that could boost minority presence on campuses.
The administration was silent on a critical question: whether race could ever be used as a factor in admissions. If it chooses to settle that issue, the Supreme Court could use the Michigan case to review an earlier ruling on affirmative action that said quotas were unconstitutional but race could be a factor.
The senior administration official speaking about Rice's opinion said that she agrees with the president's decision to file a limited brief and not take on race preferences in general.
The University of Michigan system evaluates potential students on a points system that offers blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans 20 points for their race. Students who receive 100 points or more on the 150-point scale are admitted to the program.
Earlier in the week Bush said that "at their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly reward or penalize prospective students solely on their race."
He added that he does support racial diversity but would choose other means of achieving it.
Senate Democrats and others who slammed the president's decision to file any brief with the court said that the president's position also does not provide equal protection.
"It raises an equal protection issue to say that all forms of diversity can be promoted except for racial diversity," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., at a Democratic forum on civil rights held Friday.
White House officials said that Bush urged Rice to go public with any differences she may have.
Some strategists suggest that the president encouraged Rice to air her views in order to demonstrate the president's willingness to listen to a wide range of opinions from a diverse set of advisers.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "Dr. Rice has a long record on this issue and she didn't want any media coverage of her position to fail to mention her record. The president welcomes and continues to welcome her helpful input and thoughts."
With a quick defense of her views, Rice is certain to fuel speculation that she harbors political ambitions. Many Republicans consider her a potential presidential or vice presidential candidate.
At the same time, Bush is trying to appease those who have already voted for him, casting aside the conservatives' argument that race should never be used as a factor, a position that would surely alienate swing voters and minorities who want the GOP to be more tolerant.
The president, however, also sought to placate conservatives by weighing in against the affirmative action programs instead of exercising his option not to take part in the case.
Fox News' Jamie Nelson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.