Lawmakers and special interest groups started positioning themselves for President Bush's next pick for U.S. Supreme Court justice the same day a fumbled nomination ended in Harriet Miers (search) withdrawing from the confirmation process.
Miers, who will remain as White House counsel, made a surprise announcement Thursday morning that she is withdrawing her name from consideration to replace Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search), who announced over the summer that she wanted to retire from the bench. O'Connor agreed to stay on while her replacement was vetted through the confirmation process.
In her withdrawal letter dated Thursday, Miers told the president that her pending confirmation hearings would likely be "a burden for the White House and our staff that is not in the best interest of the country."
In withdrawing, Miers cited pressure by the Senate Judiciary Committee on the White House to produce documents pertaining to her work for the president. The White House has insisted the documents are protected under executive privilege.
But it is unlikely Miers pulled out strictly on principle. Her Oct. 3 nomination initially stunned, then outraged Bush's conservative base.
"In politics, for most major decisions there's a good reason and the real reason," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told FOX News. "The good reason is the White House is using their refusal to disclose documents. The real reason is Harriet Miers ran into withering criticism from the right wing of the Republican Party and the president decided to withdraw her nomination."
While Democrats primarily withheld their fire after Miers was named, debate roiled among conservatives over her qualifications. Miers had never served as a judge, never argued a case before the Supreme Court and had no record of legal scholarship.
Conservatives argued that in settling on Miers as the "most qualified" person in the land for a lifetime seat on the nation's highest court, Bush was thumbing his nose at those who voted for him in expectation that his nominees would steer the court rightward.
Those same conservatives showed little restraint in containing their thrill with Miers' decision to bite the bullet and pull out.
"We love President Bush. He made a mistake, the mistake is gone. Now, we love him again," said Ann Coulter, author of "How to Talk to a Liberal If You Must."
"I am so glad to be back on his side again," she said.
Elsewhere, Republican lawmakers who just days ago questioned Miers' qualifications praised her for having the "courage" to step aside.
"Her decision to withdraw out of respect for the separation of powers, one of America's greatest founding principles, was a selfless act of courage that I commend," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said.
But with the "unknown quantity" of Miers out of the picture, some Democrats who had also expressed reservations about her appeared to almost miss her on Thursday.
"I expected us to have the hearings and make up my mind as we did with John Roberts," said ranking Judiciary Committee Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont.
"There was not one Democrat who said she should withdraw," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said. She was one of many Senate Democrats articulating that point on Thursday.
"Democrats are coming out of this looking quite pure and innocent because they did not lead the charge," said Richard Davis, author of "Electing Justice: Fixing the Supreme Court Nomination Process."
"What I think you will see on the next [nominee], particularly if the president gives the right wing someone that they want, the Democrats will still have ammunition" to battle it out, Davis said.
With the pressure coming from Bush's base, expectations are high for the president to name a solid, well-documented conservative as his next choice to replace O'Connor. That could lead to the fight many expected but did not see during the September confirmation of John Roberts (search) to be chief justice of the court.
Congressional aides said they expected Bush to name his next pick as early as Monday. But it's highly unlikely the nominee would make it through the confirmation process in time for the Nov. 30 arguments of two abortion-related cases before the court, as some Republicans were hoping for Miers.
While a best-case scenario gets the nominee confirmed by year's end, with holidays and vacations coming up for Judiciary Committee members that becomes an improbable timeline. On the flip side, after Dec. 6, the high court does not have any pressing cases yet scheduled at least until after Jan. 9 when the court returns from a long recess.
Several names on the conservative short list were offered before Miers was nominated. Among those floated as reliably conservative but impeccably credentialed so as to appease moderate Democrats are J. Michael Luttig (search) of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Michael McConnell (search) of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Maura Corrigan (search) of the Michigan Supreme Court.
Other names that have come up are 4th Circuit Court Judge Karen Williams (search), Judge Edith Jones (search) and Edith Clement (search) from the 5th Circuit and former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson (search).
Court observers also point to Maureen Mahoney (search) as a potential win-win nominee for Bush. While never having served as a judge, Mahoney, like Roberts, clerked for the late William H. Rehnquist (search) and went on to work with the current chief justice in the solicitor general's office during George H.W. Bush's administration.
Mahoney is now an appellate attorney with the Washington-based firm Latham and Watkins, and she has argued prominent cases before the high court, most notably, Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 affirmative action case.
"She's a very good advocate, and argued the Michigan affirmative action case for the University of Michigan, so Democrats will love her, but she's clearly a Republican," Neil Devins of William & Mary Law School said of the woman often described as the female John Roberts.
"If the president feels he has to appoint a woman or person of color ... who will get through and [perhaps anger] social conservatives but otherwise won't [anger] anyone else, it's obviously someone like her," Devins told FOXNews.com.
If Bush appeases right-wing conservatives by choosing another Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas, Davis said the president would again run into obstacles, this time with moderates.
"That is the problem the president faces — his core constituency as a group is not the majority of the country. The majority tends to be quite moderate," Davis said.
And while Democrats may have benefited from a recent spate of scandals and policy troubles in Bush's administration and party, Miers' withdrawal likely spells a fight for them.
"Democrats should certainly be wary — it's quite possible the president in reaction goes for a more extreme, conservative, ideological candidate like Edith Jones, Janice Rogers Brown or Priscilla Owen," said David Yalof, a judicial nominations expert at the University of Connecticut, referring to appellate court judges. Brown and Owen have already been caught up in the filibuster fight in the Senate, and were only confirmed after a deal was made among moderate senators.
"You will see a battle on ideological grounds rather than procedural grounds or qualifications," Yalof said.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a moderate Republican who often clashed with the far right during his years in Washington, hinted that the Miers debacle offered lessons on how to judge the next potential nominee.
"You don't find out where they are on homosexual rights or abortion or affirmative action. That's not what you spend your time on," Simpson told FOXNews.com. "Are these good people? Are they going to interpret the constitution as a living document? These saliva tests of purity are a disaster."
Miers herself must not have enjoyed her nomination much, either. A prominent attorney from Texas, the 60-year-old established many firsts as a woman in a male-dominated field, only to see her public image trampled by pundits and lawmakers during the most important job interview of her life.
But in a roundabout way, Miers' ill-fated nomination may have been a sign of how far women have come, in that her gender for the most part did not factor into the debate.
"What we're seeing here is a merit-based threshold you have to meet. The president was forgetting that — he brought forth someone who he could wink and nod and say, 'She's OK,'" Davis said. "You could say with Sandra Day O'Connor there was some of that, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg there was some of that as well, but with the third one you don't have that anymore."
FOX News' Trish Turner contributed to this report.