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Boston judge Breyer touted as front-runner

After a two-hour lunch with Boston Judge Stephen G. Breyer, the presumed front-runner for the Supreme Court vacancy, President Clinton decided to give himself at least one more night to ponder his choice.

Top administration officials said privately they assumed that the 54-year-old Breyer, a moderatefederal appeals judge popular in the U.S. Senate, was going to be Clinton's final pick _ probably sometime Saturday.

White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers told reporters shortly after the lunch between the president and his prospective nominee that Clinton had not made up his mind "as of now."

Other administration officials, however, were seen reviewing official White House photos of the two men at lunch _ photos not released to the press _ and were overheard discussing the best time to make the announcement.

Outside advisers involved in the process said they had no reason to believe that the president at this late stage would turn away from Breyer to another candidate.

Friday marked the end of 12 weeks since Justice Byron R. White announced his retirement from the court. White explained in resigning that he wanted to give the president ample time to choose his successor before the court's new term begins.

Senate Judiciary Committee members say they need a nominee soon to be able to ensure the confirmation process will be over when the next session begins in October.

Clinton apparently was thrown off-course by the refusal of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to take the job. The selection process then focused on an ever-changing list of supposed "finalists," none of whom excited the president.

Several times, Clinton asked his aides to come up with new names, and they did so until the process finally settled down to a contest between Breyer and Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt.

Babbitt surfaced on the list for the first time last week in a development that seemed to catch everyone by surprise. Although his name was greeted with general respect in the Senate, where Clinton badly needs a victory, some reservations were raised by Republicans on the Judiciary Committee who complained that he had no judicial experience and might be seen as a "political" appointment.