While much of the debate over controversial federal appeals court nominee Charles Pickering Sr. has focused on his checkered civil rights history, his record on abortion - the litmus test of all judicial litmus tests - has also been a powerful factor.
Whether Judge Pickering is defeated in an expected Senate committee vote today, or whether he withdraws, the case is being viewed here as the first battle in a coming war over a potential Supreme Court vacancy.
Certainly it illustrates the difficulty President Bush would have in pushing an antiabortion nominee for the highest court in the land.
"I think the entire battle is really an abortion controversy," says Gary Bauer, an abortion opponent and former GOP presidential candidate. "This is sort of a warm-up round for the inevitable Supreme Court vacancy, and I think Senate Democrats are trying to intimidate the White House into not nominating anyone who would be anti-Roe v. Wade" (the landmark ruling legalizing abortion).
While high-profile advocacy groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have been lobbying senators to reject Pickering on civil-rights grounds, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) is mobilizing against him for his antiabortion record.
When Pickering was in the Mississippi State Senate, he supported an amendment to the US Constitution that would ban abortions. He also backed the antiabortion plank in the Republican platform.
"He doesn't want to throw it back to the states," says Betsy Cavendish, NARAL's legal director. "He goes the whole nine yards and wants to ban abortion.... This nomination should send a signal to the White House that it must send up moderates."
Mr. Bush nominated the Mississippi federal judge on the recommendation of GOP Sen. Trent Lott, who is also from Mississippi and who is a longtime friend of Pickering.
But his proposed elevation to become a federal appellate judge - the most powerful judgeship outside the Supreme Court - has turned into a nasty partisan battle that included rounds fired from the Oval Office last week.
Twice Mr. Lott has succeeded in postponing a vote on the nomination in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has indicated it will reject Pickering 10 to 9 along party lines. Lott has said the delays were to drum up support for the nominee, but this week he admitted he will no longer seek to put off the vote, tentatively scheduled for today.
"This is a slap at President Bush, saying, 'you sent us up a conservative Republican, pro-life type person. No matter how qualified they are ... we're going to rough them up and attack their character,' " Sen. Lott said on Fox News Sunday this week.
In truth, conservative Republicans are not happy with the way the White House handled this nomination. The president's appeal last week from the Oval Office, where Pickering sat in a chair usually reserved for a head of state, was too little, too late, they say.
Now Republicans are talking about creating a "war room" on the Hill to better coordinate judicial nominations.
The fight over Pickering presages problems for Bush if he were to try to put an abortion opponent on the Supreme Court, the top wish of social conservatives who form his base in the Republican Party.
The White House is acutely aware of the resonance this issue has with Christian conservatives, in particular. Last year, Bush political advisor Karl Rove commented that in the 2,000 election, 4 million evangelicals, pentacostals, and fundamentalists stayed home on voting day.
These were votes the president should have had, Rove said, adding: "We may have failed to mobilize them."
Since coming to power, the Bush administration has made a point of cultivating this group in many ways: blocking funds for family-planning organizations that also counsel on abortion; filing a legal brief that supports Ohio's ban on late-term abortions; reclassifying a fetus as an unborn child; and just this week, supporting a House bill that recognizes abortion survivors as "individual ... entitled to the full protection of the law."
But the president, who is himself antiabortion, has left most of these announcements to others in the administration, and has not personally taken up the cause the way abortion opponents would like.
Political analysts say that while the White House needs those evangelical votes, it also needs independents and "soccer moms," many of whom favor abortion rights.
"He's finessing the right," says pollster John Zogby. But when the Supreme Court nomination is upon him, "he's got to somehow turn right."