Supreme Court vacancy highlights stakes in presidential race

WASHINGTON (AP) — The unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and the immediate declaration from Republicans that the next president should nominate his replacement, adds even more weight to the decision voters will make in November's general election.

Candidates in both parties moved quickly to reframe the election as a referendum on the nine-member high court's future.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz released a new television advertisement Monday warning voters that conservatives are "just one Supreme Court justice away" from losing on issues including "life, marriage, religious liberty, the Second Amendment." The spot also suggests Republican front-runner Donald Trump would nominate more liberal justices and includes clips of the real estate mogul saying he's "very pro-choice."

Democrat Hillary Clinton painted a similarly stark scenario.

"If any of us needed a reminder of just how important it is to take back the United States Senate and hold onto the White House, just look at the Supreme Court," Clinton said.

Clinton has said the court's makeup is crucial to preserving abortion rights and the legality of gay marriage nationwide.

The court now is divided between four liberal and four typically conservative justices.

Obama pledged to nominate a replacement in "due time," even after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that responsibility should fall to the winner of the 2016 election.

Obama could try to force a nominee through the Senate this year. Even if that were to happen, a confirmation vote probably would be months away, leaving the Supreme Court in the center of the campaign during the nomination process.

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who served in the Cabinet of President George W. Bush, said Monday that Obama has an obligation to select a replacement for Scalia, telling CNN that "the president has to do his job." Gonzales said that the Senate, likewise, has a role and should weigh Obama's choice "on its own calendar."

With three other justices over the age of 75, the next president could have other vacancies during his or her tenure, even if Obama fills Scalia's seat.

It's unclear how the new focus on the Supreme Court might affect voters' decisions in an election that has seen unconventional candidates such as Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders challenge their parties' establishments.

Sanders easily defeated Clinton in the New Hampshire primary and finished a close second in the Iowa caucuses. Trying to counter his momentum, Clinton has urged voters to consider which candidate is most electable in November.

With the balance of the Supreme Court now potentially on the line, Clinton and her allies are certain to increase their warnings about the risk of sending a self-declared democratic socialist to face a Republican in the fall.

Among Republicans, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are casting themselves as candidates who could appeal to swing voters in the general election and put the Republicans in position to guide the next court nominations. But that could open them up to questions from Republican primary voters about the ideological purity of their judicial choices.

Cruz is using the potential vacancy to build on his long-standing argument that Republicans should select a nominee with the most conservative credentials. An uncompromising conservative since arriving in the Senate, Cruz vowed to put "principled constitutionalists" on the Supreme Court.

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Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC

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