President Bush is weighing in on a highly controversial Supreme Court case that deals with the sensitive issue of race. It focuses on actions taken by colleges to assure racial diversity.

For years, the University of Michigan has given black and Hispanic students an edge in admissions, a move designed to create racial balance on campus.

But opponents say the minority preferences are unfair, that applicants should be judged solely on their academic qualifications and life experiences. They took the University of Michigan to court, claiming the preferences, know as affirmative action, amount to an unfair quota system.

In a brief prepared for submission to the court, the Bush administration agrees. The president, fully aware of the political implications of the case, went before reporters to outline the arguments his administration will present to the high court.

"I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education," he said. "But the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed."

He said quota systems which give minority applicants an advantage are wrong and unconstitutional. The president said he wants to see more minority students attending college, but added admission policies must be fair to all.

"As we work to address the wrong of racial prejudice, we must not use means that create yet another wrong and thus perpetuate our divisions," he said.

The University of Michigan case is said to be the most important affirmative action case to come before the court in a quarter-century. President Bush said government lawyers will tell the justices that there are better, fairer ways to promote diversity.

"Recent history has proven that diversity can be achieved without using quotas," he said. "Systems in California, Florida and Texas have proven that by guaranteeing admissions to the top students from high schools throughout the state, including low-income neighborhoods, colleges can attain broad racial diversity."

The president is walking a fine line as he deals with this court case. Just last month, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott created a political furor with comments many saw as racially insensitive. Democrats described Mr. Lott's comments as just another sign that the Republicans are not committed to equal rights for minorities. And the top Senate Democrat Tom Daschle wasted no time responding to the president's remarks on affirmative action.

"Well, once again today the administration has said as clearly by their actions as anyone can that they will continue to side with those who oppose civil rights and oppose diversity in this country," he said.

Meanwhile, Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, has announced that he will file a brief in support of the university's affirmative action program. Mr. Gephardt the former House Minority Leader, is one of a growing number of Democrats seeking the party's 2004 presidential nomination.