In media battle over Roberts, GOP on top

Lack of controversy and opponents' misstep give the Supreme Court nominee an important leg up.

So far, the White House appears to be ahead in the media battle to sell John Roberts's nomination to the US Supreme Court.

"The Bush administration did a very good job of introducing Roberts as a sensible, pragmatic, just-right-of-center fellow that just about anyone between the ideological 20-yard lines would be comfortable with," says Charlie Cook (no relation to the writer), editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

"Although opponents have been agitating and trying to drum up opposition and finding a smoking gun, the president's side has done better," concurs Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, which provides nonpartisan political and election analysis.

The goal of whipping up a political base is straightforward: so that voters put pressure on members of the Senate to either support or oppose a nominee. One reason Republicans have done better in energizing their base for Judge Roberts is that "they have good material to work with," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics in Charlottesville.

"Fundamentally it comes down to the nominee," he says. "Is he or she qualified, is he or she talented, and [is he or she] in the mainstream? So far, the answers to all three questions are emphatically yes."

In fact, before Roberts's name was submitted, opposition groups had been "raising money and planning events, believing this would be another Robert Bork or Clarence Thomas," notes Dr. Sabato. "It turned out to be a whimper instead of a bang."

Of course, the dynamics could change. Both sides would put renewed attention on motivating their base if there is a major negative revelation hidden in documents about Roberts's government service. The White House is scheduled to release a flurry of additional papers Monday.

"It will take something massive in the records or in Roberts's background to make this nominee controversial, because he just isn't," says Sabato.

The NARAL ad

The White House dominance in the media battle over the nomination was reinforced last week. Roberts's opponents suffered a significant setback when the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America was forced to withdraw a roundly criticized television ad accusing the nominee of an ideology that "leads him to excuse violence against other Americans." Critics say the ad mischaracterized an argument Roberts made to the Supreme Court in the case of Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic.

"The victory, of course, is not getting the ad off the air. The victory is reminding all the players and observers of this process who is on offense and who [is] on defense," wrote Mark Halperin, political editor of ABC News, in the network's daily political blog "The Note."

"It is embarrassing for NARAL and it makes it more difficult for other critics to attack Roberts," says Mr. Rothenberg. "Republican conservatives can dismiss it as, 'there they go again.' "

The ad controversy highlights an important advantage for President Bush: His party has lined up solidly behind Roberts. Meanwhile, Democrats appear to be still trying to figure out how to deal with the nomination of a smooth, personally appealing candidate with only a relatively brief record of judicial decisions.

"The Bush administration could not have handled this nomination much better," says Charlie Cook. "The key was securing the center and counting on the conservative base staying in line, albeit a bit uneasily."

In contrast to the largely unified Republican support for Roberts, "there is a big split in the Democratic Party between the liberals and all the others," says Sabato.

"We are in an era when unanimous approval of Supreme Court nominees is a thing of the past. So liberals will likely vote against [Roberts]. Most of the other Democrats will vote for him. So the chances of a successful filibuster are virtually nil."

In fact, two Democratic senators, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, already have said they are leaning toward supporting Roberts's confirmation.

A question of emphasis

Among other issues, Democrats are split on how much to emphasize abortion in the nomination battle. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts told party operatives that he believed the Democratic stance on abortion and gay rights cost him the 2004 presidential election.

And last week a top Clinton administration official, Lanny Davis, was front and center in criticizing the NARAL ad, telling The New York Times it was "inaccurate, filled with innuendo and shameless."

In coming days, the battle over Roberts is expected to focus on documents and specifically over whether the White House has provided sufficient information to the Senate. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are united in wanting the White House to release documents from Roberts's service from 1989 to 1993, when he was principal deputy solicitor general during George H.W. Bush's presidency.

Last Friday, committee Democrats wrote to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asking him to reconsider a decision not to release those documents, which Democrats say are essential to understanding Roberts's views on civil rights.

"Of various administration positions he has held, his service as the 'political' deputy in the [Office of the Solicitor General] may well be the most relevant for evaluating the Supreme Court nomination," the Democrats wrote.

But earlier last week, committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania sided with the White House in the dispute, eliminating the possibility that the committee would issue a subpoena for the documents.

After receiving the letter from the Judiciary Committee Democrats, a Justice Department spokesman said, "as seven former solicitor generals have stated previously, the confidentiality that enables the solicitor general's office to vigorously defend United States interests should not be sacrificed as part of the confirmation process."

Meanwhile, evangelical Christian supporters of the Roberts nomination planned a televised rally Sunday called "Justice Sunday II" to be broadcast from a large church in Nashville, Tenn.

Analysts, however, do not expect the broadcast to have much lasting impact. "I don't read much importance into this Justice Sunday thing," says Charlie Cook. "Viewers are a sliver of a fringe of a movement."

Rothenberg adds, "There is no evidence that Roberts's supporters need another Justice Sunday or would benefit from another Justice Sunday."

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