[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/04/06/art.newt.jpg caption="Gingrich tweeted last week that Sotomayor is a 'latina woman racist.'"]
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Well, well.
After initially waiting a few nanoseconds to call Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor a racist - not to mention advising that she just ought to withdraw from consideration - Newt Gingrich has had a sudden change of heart. Or at least vocabulary.
In the conservative magazine Human Events, he writes on Wednesday: "My initial reaction was strong and direct - perhaps too strong and too direct.
... Since then, some who want to have an open and honest consideration of Judge Sotomayor's fitness to serve on the nation's highest court have been critical of my word choice. ... The word 'racist' should not have been applied to Judge Sotomayor as a person, even if her words themselves are unacceptable."
An apology from Newt? And one that contains a string of thoughts too long to Twitter? How can that be?
It seems as if poor Gingrich found himself the target of his own Republican Party. Some of the more serious folks in the Senate had been trying to figure out what kind of a jurist Sotomayor might be, when Newt and Rush Limbaugh decided to morph into Thelma and Louise.
Their favorite topic? Sotomayor's now infamous statement that, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Foolish, yes. Self-serving, sure.
But Gingrich and Co. just couldn't leave it at that. Personal name-calling is just so much more fun - and attention-getting. So she became a racist (even a reverse racist), in their words.
Not surprisingly, Republican senators trying to figure out a way to mount real questions about her judicial record were appalled. One Senate Republican told me that the GOP caucus grew increasingly furious at Gingrich's grandstanding.
"People are really angry," the senator says. "Newt and Rush have simply made it far more difficult for Republicans to raise the legitimate issues. They're so quick to throw the word racist around, they look ugly, and make us look the same way."
And ugly is not a good place to be when you've just resoundingly lost an election - with less than one-third of the Hispanic vote. If it stays at that level, Republicans will have a hard time winning elections in key red states with growing Hispanic populations.
"Is calling her names our best talking point?" asks GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio. "It's a symptom of being leaderless; it's every man for himself these days." The point, he says, is not to question whether Sotomayor is qualified to sit on the court. After all, after 17 years on the bench, there's no doubt she has the right resume. The right question to ask, Fabrizio rightly argues, is this: How is she going to fill that seat?
And then there's this: Instead of throwing around terms like "judicial activist," why not actually examine her record and look for things that might have some real meaning for the American people?
In these economic times, the old culture wars arguments against judges as a group of evil-doers ready to 'legislate from the bench' holds much less sway. "It's got to be about a question of fairness when people are suffering economic anxiety," says Fabrizio, who looks to the New Haven firefighters case as good fodder for discussion. In that case, the city denied promotions to a largely white group of firefighters after a civil service exam in which none of the black employees who took the test would have been promoted.
"These people studied for a test, passed it and didn't get their promotions," Fabrizio says.
And if the high court overturns Sotomayor's ruling - which some say is likely - the decision would only make the case more incendiary. And that's a fair discussion to have.
But it should also be held in the context of the judge's voluminous record. Tom Goldstein of the respected Scotusblog has done our work for us in examining the firefighters case plus 96 other race-related cases Sotomayor ruled on while on the Court of Appeals.
Goldstein's findings hardly show the mark of a jurist who is looking for discrimination above all else. The judge and the panel rejected the claim of discrimination 78 times and found it to be accurate in 10 cases. Nine of those cases were decided unanimously. Overall, he calculates, "Judge Sotomayor rejected discrimination-related claims by a margin of roughly 8 to 1."
All in all, Goldstein writes, in an 11-year career on the Second Circuit, the judge "has participated in roughly 100 panel decisions involving questions of race and has disagreed with her colleagues in those cases ... a total of four times."
Four times? Is that a legal activist? A reverse racist? A racist? Or even an extremist? Hardly.
Note to Newt: Need new adjectives.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.