WASHINGTON (CNN) - In the very early stages of the selection process to replace Justice David Souter, Obama administration officials say there is a strong inclination to pick a woman, but stress there is no short list and the field of candidates is wide open.
The officials acknowledge the likelihood of a female pick stems in part from the fact that former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was not replaced by a woman so there is now just one female on the high court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, out of nine justices.
Rachel Brand, a veteran of the former Bush administration's Supreme Court selection process, said the general perception in legal circles is that Obama will nominate a woman for that reason.
"Or there is a strong expectation he will nominate a woman partly because Justice O'Connor was not replaced by a woman," said Brand. "That's not to say that he has to or even that he should nominate a woman. It's just what the political imperative seems to be right now."
Administration officials do not disagree with that perception, but stress that Obama is going to use overall qualifications for the job as the guiding principle – regardless of gender or race. That could mean winding up with a well-qualified man, similar to former President George W. Bush's selection of a Chief Justice.
"He's going to go with excellence, not unlike the previous President going with John Roberts," noted one Obama administration official.
Brand said the possibility of multiple Supreme Court retirements over the next few years could give Obama some flexibility in his first nomination.
"He may nominate a woman for this one and then the next time he may be freer to nominate whomever he wants, or he may decide that he should go with whoever the best candidate is irrespective of gender," said Brand. "But certainly the conventional wisdom is he will go with a woman.