Right-wingers welcome Bush's substitute judge

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Republican conservatives, who last week forced the withdrawal of Mr Bush's original nominee, Harriet Miers, have welcomed the nomination of Samuel Alito, who has sat on the federal appeals court for the past 15 years. Mr Alito, 55, has the nickname Scalito - a comparison to the Supreme Court justice Anthony Scalia who shares his Italian heritage and his reputation for being strongly conservative. But Democrats were quick to question Mr Alito's suitability, saying there was evidence that during his judicial career he had actively undermined the legal right for women to have an abortion.

Democratic senators said that they would ensure Mr Alito was placed under the closest scrutiny during the confirmation process while some observers suggested that Democrats may seek to use the filibuster option to "talk out" his nomination.

The prospect of a bruising showdown over Mr Alito may be no bad thing for the administration. With Mr Bush suffering the lowest ratings of his presidency, the White House is desperate to shift the focus away from the impending trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, who last Friday was charged with five criminal counts over the CIA leak affair. This is especially true given that, now the White House has the support of hardcore conservatives, Mr Alito will probably be confirmed, however tough the confirmation process.

Announcing his new nominee to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Mr Bush said Mr Alito had shown a "mastery of the law, a deep commitment to justice, and he is a man of enormous character". Mr Alito, who also served in the Justice Department, said: "The Supreme Court is an institution that I have long held in reverence."

While there will be disappointment in some quarters that Mr Bush chose not to nominate a woman or a Hispanic candidate, the forthcoming fight over Mr Alito will focus on his attitude towards abortion. Democrats quickly pointed out a case dating from 1991 when Mr Alito argued to uphold a Pennsylvania law requiring women seeking an abortion to tell their husbands.

The Supreme Court overturned the law but Mr Alito's reasoning was mentioned in the high court's dissent. The veteran Democratic senator Edward Kennedy, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Mr Bush had nominated Mr Alito as a means of halting a "massive haemorrhaging of support on his right wing". He added: "Alito could very well fundamentally alter the balance of the court and push it dangerously to the right, placing at risk decades of American progress in safeguarding our fundamental rights and freedoms."