WASHINGTON Whether President Barack Obama looks to a moderate or a liberal as his second Supreme Court nominee, one thing is certain -- with critical congressional elections looming in November, he will make his selection quickly.
The president will announce his candidate within the next several weeks, a White House official said, with the news generally seen coming in the first part of May.
The White House has not said who is on the list but among those being considered are several appeals court judges -- who would join a court filled with former judges -- and several less traditional picks, including one of the administration's top lawyers, a Cabinet secretary and a governor.
Obama is meeting Wednesday with Republican and Democratic senators as he seeks support in selecting a nominee to fill the seat being vacated by Justice John Paul Stevens, considered the high court's leading liberal.
For now, staff members are gathering information about a range of candidates and Obama is not expected to speak directly with any until after the talks Wednesday with senators.
"I would make sure that you understand that we're in a process of expanding that list and giving the president as many options as he desires to make an important selection," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters this week.
Analysts said it makes sense for Obama to get through a distracting confirmation process as soon as possible before elections in November in which his Democrats will be fighting to keep their majorities Congress.
"They've got plenty of stuff on their legislative agenda that this is going to suck energy from," said Russell Wheeler, a court expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They'd just as soon keep this as far away from the mid-term election as possible."
Obama has indicated that he is open to selecting a candidate who has had a career as a politician or a policymaker, rather than considering only judges.
Nominating a Democratic politician -- or any judicial figure seen as too liberal -- could drag the White House into a fight with Republicans that might distract from legislative priorities like climate change and financial reform.
Stevens leads the court's liberal bloc but also has been a consensus builder whose forceful personality could persuade fellow justices to win majority support for his opinions.
Administration officials have said the White House is not looking to nominate someone to be a minority liberal voice, however powerful, but wants a bridge builder like Stevens.
FIGHT WITH REPUBLICANS
Obama's pick will not change the ideological balance of the court, which now has five conservatives and four liberals, but the White House says it expects a fight, no matter who Obama nominates.
"Whether or not we have entered a phase in our politics where a fight on anybody can be avoided, I don't know the answer to that," Gibbs said.
Analysts said it is in the White House's interest to make opposition Republicans seem intransigent and unreasonable, as they seek to ward off opposition to any nominee.
One of the top contenders for the job is Elena Kagan, 49, whom Obama chose as the first female U.S. solicitor general, a job in which she represents the U.S. government before the Supreme Court. She benefits from having been through a successful confirmation process.
Also seen as leading candidates are Merrick Garland, 57, a U.S. appeals judge in Washington seen viewed as a more moderate pick likely to appeal more to Republicans, and Diane Wood, 59, a Chicago appeals judge who knows Obama from teaching at the University of Chicago law school, but is seen as more liberal.
Other names mentioned by administration officials include Sidney Thomas, 56, a Montana native now an appeals court judge in California who would broaden the geographic representation on a court dominated by former judges from the Northeast.
Two possible choices from outside the courthouse are Democratic Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, 51, and Janet Napolitano, 52, Obama's homeland security secretary and the former Democratic governor of Arizona.
Obama's first nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice and only the third woman ever on the court, was confirmed last year by a 68-31 vote after a heated battle.
Conservatives had questioned Sotomayor's impartiality and she was targeted in an Internet clip in which she commented that a "wise Latina" might reach a better decision than a white man.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, Editing by Alistair Bell and Bill Trott)