Newt Gingrich has retreated from calling Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s nominee to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, a racist because she dared to declare that being a “wise Latina woman” helps make her a good judge.

“My initial reaction was strong and direct — perhaps too strong and too direct,” he admitted recently. “The sentiment struck me as racist, and I said so. 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.”

Call me naive, but I can’t be the only person who was left wondering: What does that last sentence imply? Is Gingrich admitting that only his critics “want an open and honest consideration of Judge Sotomayor’s fitness”? That those who don’t want “an open and honest consideration” applaud his calling her a racist? Hmmm.

Gingrich continues: “Has President Obama nominated a conventionally liberal judge to lifetime tenure on our highest court? Or a radical liberal activist who will cast aside the rule of law in favor of the narrow, divisive politics of race and gender identity?”

For Gingrich, a presumed 2012 presidential candidate trying to woo the GOP’s conservative base, this latest response is certainly a gentler approach to Sotomayor’s nomination than his previous name-calling.

Wasn’t it Ronald Reagan who said that facts are stubborn things?

GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham is evidently quaking in fear that Sotomayor’s “wise Latina woman” comment means that as a Supreme Court justice, she will not treat white males fairly. “Being an average, everyday white guy,” said Graham, “that doesn’t exactly make me feel good.”

Invectives couched as “demonstrating concerns about one’s background” have no place in politics today. Members of the U.S. Senate are called upon to advise and consent — not use the nomination process to demonize and fearmonger for partisan political gain. It’s wrong when the left smears judicial candidates and equally so for the right. The debate should focus on Sotomayor’s judicial record, and there is plenty there to discuss in a civil manner.

What’s so curious about all this trumped-up outrage is that Sotomayor has made similar remarks in the past. In a 1994 speech on women in the judiciary before the Conference on Law Reviews, Sotomayor said: “First, if Professor Martha Minnow is correct, there can never be a universal definition of ‘wise.’ Second, I would hope that a wise woman with the richness of her experience would, more often than not, reach a better conclusion. What is better? I, like Professor Resnik, hope that better will mean a more compassionate and caring conclusion.”

Sotomayor has confirmed that it is the rule of law, not one’s personal background, that guides a decision. Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will oversee her nomination, asked Sotomayor for clarification on her “wise Latina remark.” According to Leahy, she responded, “Of course one’s life experience shapes who you are.” But, she added, “Ultimately and completely, a judge has to follow the law no matter what their upbringing has been.”

Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR; contributing columnist to Roll Call; and former campaign manager for Al Gore.