White House Cheat Sheet: Five Senators to Watch on Sotomayor
Forty-eight hours into the confirmation process of U.S. appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor, there remains little reason to think she will not ultimately be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That doesn't mean, however, that there won't be real drama over the next two months with opportunities taken -- and, more deliciously, lost.

The major players -- Judiciary Committee Chair Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and sherpa Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) -- are well known to any political junkie worth that title.

But, who else in the Senate is worth keeping an eye on as the Sotomayor confirmation ramps up?

Given that Democrats are expected to line up solidly behind their popular president and his pick, most of the action will come on the Republican side as GOP senators use the Sotomayor selection to forward their own political futures -- whatever they may be.

Our five senators to watch are below. Keep the list handy.

• John Cornyn (R-Texas): As a member of the Judiciary Committee, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a senator from a state where the Hispanic vote is big and getting bigger, there's a lot at stake in the Sotomayor confirmation for Big Bad John. Cornyn has made a point at the NRSC of recruiting moderate candidates in places like Pennsylvania, Florida, Delaware and Illinois but his own politics are far more conservative. How does he balance those competing interests? And, if nothing obviously disqualifying comes to light about Sotomayor, can he keep his colleagues in line to avoid a perception problem for his candidates on the trail next November?

• Jim DeMint (R-S.C.): The South Carolina Republican has been viewed as the conservative leader-in-waiting for the Senate GOP for some time. With the conservative base absolutely up in arms about Sotomayor, DeMint is the most likely figure to channel that anger onto the Senate floor and, in doing so, emerge as the next hero of the party's base. Conservatives could do far worse: soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, DeMint is hard to demonize, even for those on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum.

• John Ensign (R-Nev.): Ensign has publicly acknowledged an interest in running for president, which will be formalized by his trip to Iowa next week. That interest would suggest Ensign might be one of the leading voices in opposition to Sotomayor. But, Ensign also represents a state where one in every five residents is Hispanic, a number sure to increase by the time the Nevada Republican is set to stand for reelection in 2012. How Ensign positions himself on Sotomayor then will tell us much about how he sees his political future. Does he hold back on criticizing her in order to preserve his chances at another Senate term? Or does he go all-out in opposition to Sotomayor to raise his national profile and prove his conservative chops to Republican activists who have an outsized say in the identity of the next presidential nominee?

• Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.): The Sotomayor selection is a gift for Gillibrand. Not only is Sotomayor from New York -- meaning that Gillibrand will get some national attention as one of the two home state senators -- but she is also Hispanic, a fact that should allow Gillibrand to make peace with a Hispanic community upset with her past positioning on immigration. Gillibrand -- with a MAJOR assist from the White House -- has done well in clearing the 2010 primary field of serious opposition and, if she plays her hand right in the Sotomayor confirmation, may close the window of opportunity entirely for any ambitious pols thinking of challenging her next year.

• John McCain (R-Ariz.): Even if McCain didn't have a primary challenge from one of the founders of the Minutemen, an anti-illegal immigration group, his status as the GOP's most recent presidential nominee would make him a major player in this debate. Like him or hate him, most (and we emphasize most) of McCain's colleagues respect him and will watch where he comes down on Sotomayor. If McCain ultimately gets behind her, it gives cover to other Republicans to do the same; if he opposes her, it makes life for the nominee -- and the president -- more difficult.

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