WASHINGTON - The Senate's top Democrat praised federal judge Sonia Sotomayor Tuesday as an extraordinarily well-qualified Supreme Court nominee whose background as an "underdog" appeals to Americans.
"We have the whole package here," said Sen. Harry Reid, seated beside Sotomayor before the two met in his Capitol office. He called her life story "compelling."
"America identifies with the underdog, and you've been an underdog many times in your life, but always the top dog," Reid, D-Nev., said of Sotomayor, the New York-born daughter of Puerto Rican parents who would be the first Hispanic and the third woman on the high court.
Citing her Princeton and Yale education and long experience as a lawyer and judge, Reid said: "We could not have anyone better qualified."
The visit was the start of a daylong schedule of meet-and-greets with Republicans and Democrats designed to let senators get to know President Barack Obama's nominee before they debate confirming her.
Sotomayor was also meeting with the top Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and leaders of the Judiciary Committee, Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and senior GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
Republican senators have already begun to question remarks Sotomayor has made in the past about how her life experiences influence her judicial decisions. In turn, Democrats have defended her as a fair and unbiased judge, and all sides say they are eager to talk to her privately and question her in public hearings to come.
Leahy, who plans to meet Wednesday with Sessions on a schedule for the hearings, said he's eager to give Sotomayor the chance to respond to "unbelievable attacks" by Republican critics like radio host Rush Limbaugh and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who have branded her a racist because of remarks she made in 2001 that her experiences as a "wise Latina" would allow her to make better decisions than a white male.
"It pretty well demands that she has a hearing earlier than later," Leahy told reporters on his way to meet with Sotomayor.
He declined to discuss with reporters what he planned to ask the judge during their one-on-one session. Despite the serious subject matter, the visit began with a jovial scene captured by dozens of news photographers in which the two chatted about Leahy's grandchildren.
Sotomayor was scheduled to meet with 10 senators during her first day on Capitol Hill, retreating to Vice President Joe Biden's office between sessions to huddle with the White House team, heavy with confirmation battle veterans, that's guiding her nomination.
Among those she was to see Tuesday were Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, members of the Judiciary Committee. Rounding out her schedule was lunch with her home state Democratic senators, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, her unofficial chaperone during the confirmation process, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Feinstein said she would ask Sotomayor about the "wise Latina" comment, which she said had been "made into something egregious." She said she also wants to discuss important constitutional topics including abortion, a hot-button issue on which Sotomayor's views are not known .
"I'll ask her how she views the constitutional right to privacy," Feinstein said, adding that she "might" inquire about Sotomayor's position on the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a woman's right to end her pregnancy.
The White House is working daily to promote the narrative about Sotomayor that Obama began the day he named her: a seasoned federal judge who overcame hardship as a youngster and would deliver justice that reflects respect for the law but an understanding of real life.
Republicans, however, want to push Sotomayor about whether she would put her own views above the law and rule as an "activist."
Senate aides in both parties are preparing for Sotomayor's voluminous response to a 10-page questionnaire the Judiciary panel sent her last week - an extensive survey of her life, public statements, rulings and political activities - which will add copious detail to a so-far broad debate over her fitness and qualifications for the Supreme Court.
Barring a huge surprise, she is expected to be confirmed. Democrats control 59 seats in the Senate, where a majority vote is needed for confirmation, and another seven Republicans previously voted to confirm Sotomayor for a lower court.
Sotomayor, 54, would replace retiring Justice David Souter.
Obama wants the Senate to confirm Sotomayor before its August vacation. The White House formally started the clock on Monday, sending her nomination to the Senate.