WASHINGTON -- It was Justice Antonin Scalia's standard speech. He bemoaned the Supreme Court's growing political role in cases such as abortion and then joked about how Democrats are wary of a ''Chief Justice Scalia" in a second Bush term.
But in an appearance one week after President Bush's reelection, Scalia elicited a particularly hearty roar and ovation from a conservative Federalist Society crowd with his kicker.
''Please," a clearly pleased Scalia said. ''It was supposed to be funny!"
With Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist ailing with cancer, the irascible Scalia is doing nothing to discourage talk that he would like to be Bush's pick if Rehnquist steps aside this year.
Scalia's selection is considered a long shot, because the staunchly conservative justice would prompt a firestorm of opposition from Democrats, abortion rights supporters, and other groups. Nonetheless, Scalia seems to be relishing, if not subtly encouraging, the speculation.
''We all know the story: If you're not seen, you're not likely to be considered or heard," said Douglas Kmiec, a former legal counsel in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. ''A chief justiceship is clearly an opportunity for him to lead a court with new recruits."
Scalia has been active on the Washington social scene in recent weeks, hamming it up with the political crowd.
Some court observers say this may be an effort to counter White House concerns that the brusque Scalia is ill-suited for a job demanding consensus.
He agreed to be televised live on C-SPAN in a debate last month with Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a surprise given Scalia's hostility toward the broadcast media.
As a group, the nine justices are serving their 11th term together, a modern record.
With Clarence Thomas the only justice younger than 65, many people believe that Bush could have the opportunity to appoint several justices to a court that splits 5-4 on the death penalty, affirmative action, and gay rights.
Speculation about retirement has focused on the 80-year-old Rehnquist, a conservative who has been working mainly from home after disclosing in October that he has thyroid cancer.
Liberal John Paul Stevens, who at 84 is the oldest justice, and moderate Sandra Day O'Connor, 74, also are considered retirement possibilities.
During the presidential campaign, Bush cited Scalia, 68, and Thomas as justices he admired because of their narrow interpretation of the Constitution. Thomas privately has made it clear that he is not interested in becoming chief justice, according to friends and former clerks.
Scalia declined an interview request, but friends say he is interested in the top job.
''It would be unusual for someone who's been on the court as long as he has to not think about becoming chief justice," said former education secretary William Bennett, who used to play poker with Scalia. ''He's not going to campaign for it, but he's well-qualified."
Scalia got an unsolicited boost in December from Senate minority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, who suggested he would be open to elevating him, calling the justice a ''smart guy."
Liberal groups such as People for the American Way say they are ready to attack Scalia's 18-year antiabortion record and plan to highlight his stern dissents.
More probable than the choice of Scalia would be nomination for chief justice of someone not on the court, such as J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond.