Gebe Martinez, New America Media

Amid expectations that Sonia Sotomayor will become the first Hispanic justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee starting Monday carry high stakes for the nominee and President Obama, but mostly for Republicans.

Though the hearings might seem anti-climactic at the outset - Republicans are not planning to block a Senate floor vote and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., predicted on Sunday that she could win as many as 78 votes - Sotomayor's credibility, President Obama's criteria for picking judges, and the Republicans' handling of a female Hispanic candidate who has been labeled by some leading conservatives as "racist" will be carefully scrutinized.

Sotomayor, who will sit at the witness table with her broken ankle elevated off the ground, carries the very heavy burden of defining herself as an impartial jurist who rules based on facts and legal precedent, despite her numerous public statements that a "wise Latina" or a woman might arrive at a better decision than a "white male" because of her life experience.

The better she is able to argue that her minority status will not color her opinions, while avoiding missteps on other issues such as gun rights and abortion, the wiser the president may appear for making her his first pick for the high court.

After meeting one-on-one with 89 senators in recent weeks, Sotomayor "has wowed people," Schumer said on NBC's Meet the Press. Sotomayor, a Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent who has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit since 1998, also has received the American Bar Association's top rating.

President Obama shares the responsibility for setting up the nomination battle as a debate over the influence of self-identity.

Even before naming Sotomayor, the president said he favors judges who are dedicated to the rule of law and possess a "quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles."

Republicans, fearing that Obama will move the U.S. Supreme Court too far to the left, are poised to attack that philosophy by trying to undermine Sotomayor's judicial temperament.

The challenge for Republicans will be to delve into her record in a tough enough way that satisfies their conservative base, without looking like they are sexist or ethnically biased, risking further alienation from the growing bloc of Latino voters.

"Are we going to adhere to the classical view of the role of a judge as a neutral arbitrator not out to promote an agenda or an ideology? Or are we going to have a restrained judge who follows the law in case after case?" asked Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The response came from committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who joined Sessions Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation, in a preview of the spirited debate to come.

"Her answers are these: Ultimately and completely the law controls," Leahy said. "And she has the experience and the cases to show her to be a mainstream judge. Anything else is nitpicking," Leahy added.

The political pressure on Republicans by their conservative base to give Sotomayor a hard time has been heavy since May, when Obama introduced her at the White House as his first court nominee.

One such Republican is Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a judiciary committee member who chairs the campaign committee that is trying to recruit and elect more Republicans to the Senate.

Though his political DNA and his positioning so far suggest that he will ask tough questions, Cornyn also is mindful that Republicans need to stop the erosion of Hispanic support. In three of the six Democratic senate seats Cornyn initially targeted - California, Colorado and Nevada - Hispanics made up 18 percent, 13 percent and 15 percent of the 2008 vote respectively.

Also, if Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., wins the governor's race, a special election would be held next spring to fill her seat. President Obama lost to Republican John McCain by 12 points in Texas last year, but the share of the heavily Democratic Latino vote made up 20 percent of all votes cast, and the Hispanic population in the state is now 36 percent.

"One-third of my constituents are Hispanic," Cornyn noted during an interview on Fox News Sunday, adding that he wants "every nominee to be treated with respect."

At the same time, Cornyn stands ready to question Sotomayor's judicial philosophy and whether she has an "ethnic focus." He has been posting daily legal questions for the nominee on topics such as her views on the right to keep and bear arms.

Cornyn's electronic messages from his Texas supporters are not ambiguous on the Sotomayor debate. Early on, when Cornyn castigated radio host Rush Limbaugh and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for calling Sotomayor a "racist," the senator got flak.

"Senator, please cowboy up," began one note to Cornyn. "Stop kowtowing to the cocktail party politically correct attitude. If you see a racist liberal, call them on it."

With the outcome not really in doubt, Republicans will have to decide how far to push the debate over identity politics in the Sotomayor confirmation skirmish.

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