National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said Friday that race could be a factor in selecting colleges' students, embracing a cornerstone of affirmative action that President Bush has avoided.
"It is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body," Bush's most prominent black advisor said in a rare written statement.
The statement distanced Rice from some of the president's most conservative advisors -- and to an extent from Bush's own comments.
In a narrowly tailored brief for a Supreme Court case, the president's lawyers argued Thursday that the University of Michigan's admissions system fails the constitutional test of equal protection for all and ignores race-neutral alternatives that could boost minority presence on campuses.
The administration was silent on a critical question: whether race could be used as a factor in admissions. The Supreme Court, if it chooses to settle that issue, could use the Michigan case to review a 25-year-old affirmative-action ruling that said quotas were unconstitutional but left room for race as a factor.
Rice said she agreed with Bush's position, "which emphasizes the need for diversity and recognizes the continued legacy of racial prejudice, and the need to fight for it."
"The president challenged universities to develop ways to diversify their populations fully," she wrote.
In a significant step beyond Bush's own statements, she added:
"I believe that while race-neutral means are preferable, it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body."
Rice, former provost at Stanford University, made a rare foray into domestic policy when she participated in intense internal debate over the Michigan program, which offers points to minority applicants and sets goals for minority admissions.
White House officials said she unsuccessfully urged Bush to concede that race could be used as a factor in admissions, though she agreed with his view that the Michigan program went too far.
They said Rice was stung by a Washington Post story saying she had helped persuade Bush that favoring minorities was not an effective way of improving diversity on college campuses.
Rice discussed the article with Bush, who urged her to go public with her differences, officials said on condition of anonymity.
In an interview with the American Urban Radio Network, Rice said she agreed that affirmative action is needed "if it does not lead to quotas."
With a quick defense of her views, Rice is certain to fuel speculation that she harbors political ambitions. Many Republicans consider her a potential presidential or vice presidential candidate.
"My own personal view is that there are circumstances in which it is necessary to use race as a factor among many factors in diversifying a college class," Rice told the network. "And so I've been a supporter of affirmative action that is not quota-based and that does not seek to make race the only factor, but that considers race as one of many factors."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "Dr. Rice has a long record on this issue and she didn't want any media coverage of her position to fail to mention her record. The president welcomes and continues to welcome her helpful input and thoughts."
Making a decision loaded with political implications, Bush set aside arguments by conservatives who wanted him to argue that race should never be used as a factor.
His political advisors feared such an approach would alienate swing voters and minorities who want the GOP to be more tolerant.
Rice's decision to go public with her differing views could be part of a White House effort to show that Bush is open to a wide range of opinions from a diverse set of advisors, said a GOP strategist close to Bush.
At the same time, Bush sought to appease conservatives by weighing in against the affirmative-action programs instead of exercising his option not to take part in the case.