Battle readies over Rehnquist's seat

A partisan PR storm is already building if the chief justice retires - a decision that could come as early as next week.

On July 1, 1987, when President Reagan nominated Robert Bork for the Supreme Court, the reaction was instant - and devastating.

In less than an hour, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts took to the Senate floor and unloaded: In "Robert Bork's America," he said, "back-alley abortions" would return, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, and "rogue police" would conduct midnight raids on citizens.

Judge Bork's confirmation effort was knocked off balance and never recovered.

Eighteen years later, with a possible Supreme Court retirement nearing, maybe as early as next week, interest groups are taking that public-relations lesson to heart, ready to react with warp-speed in a media environment that has only grown more diverse and saturated. With the push of a computer button, talking points will go out to hundreds of thousands of activists; cable TV and the blogosphere will hum with intensity.

Confrontations and a PR onslaught

Already, the PR battle has begun, as speculation swirls around the ailing chief justice, William Rehnquist. Liberal groups have been calling on Bush to conduct bipartisan Senate consultations to arrive at a "consensus candidate," as previous presidents have done, and avoid a confirmation donnybrook. But across-the-aisle consultation has not been Bush's style, especially lately, as his agenda sputters. Furthermore, there has not been a Supreme Court vacancy in 11 years, and pent-up energy for a confirmation battle has been building. The infrastructure is also in place: Alliances have formed, phone banks are ready, money is being raised. Files with research on likely nominees are poised for deployment.

In the current overheated, partisan environment, liberal interest groups seem to be operating on the assumption that President Bush is likely to nominate a conservative who is "outside the mainstream" - e.g., would probably vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in 1973.

Especially on abortion, both sides agree there is little common ground. Keeping the current count of anti-Roe votes in place - the best the anti-abortion camp can achieve, if the conservative Rehnquist retires - is a top goal of social conservatives, until the departure of liberal or moderate justices can tip the court's balance.

So the signs point toward confrontation - and likely liberal attempts to stir up controversy, even if Bush nominates a top-notch jurist with a squeaky-clean background. The president has the first shot, but that's no guarantee that he frames the debate to his best advantage, analysts say.

"It's not the first person who's out of the box, it's whether the administration puts the frame in place that's difficult for anyone else to rebut," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

"In contested nominations, speed counts," says Michael Comiskey, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University Fayette, and author of "Seeking Justices: The Judging of Supreme Court Nominees." Still, he adds, controversial nominations are the exception; in routine cases, public opinion does not have much impact.

The public can expect a two-phase PR blitz, first when a justice announces retirement, then when the White House nominates a replacement. The gap may be a matter of minutes, a few days, or even a few months, depending on White House strategy. Some activists speculate that Bush might wait until September, to avoid the risky summer recess. For Bork, August was a liberal attack-fest.

"By the time the senators came back from their recess, no one wanted anything to do with him," says Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, a group formed by Bush allies three years ago to prepare for a Supreme Court vacancy.

The battle lines

Of course, conservatives won't allow lightning to strike twice, and as in a political campaign, no charge will go unanswered for long, even while much of America is at the beach. In fact, conservatives on Wednesday were to launch a preemptive strike with TV commercials charging that Democrats "will attack anyone the president nominates." The conservative group Progress for America says it will spend $18 million to support Bush's nominee. The liberal coalition will not reveal its fundraising goals. But in the recent fight to preserve the right to filibuster judicial nominees, it spent $5 million.

One key abortion-rights group, NARAL Pro-Choice America, has been actively preparing for a Supreme Court vacancy for more than two years, compiling files on possible nominees, readying phone banks, canvassing, and gathering e-mail addresses - 800,000 in all, including 30,000 people who have agreed to be "rapid responders" They will get guidance on writing letters to the editor, calling in to talk radio, and contacting senators, who must confirm the nominee.

At People for the American Way, an organizer of the liberal coalition, the focus immediately upon a retirement announcement will be to emphasize the importance of consultation.

"We will also begin to talk about what's at stake," says Elliot Mincberg, the group's executive vice president. The agenda goes beyond abortion: civil liberties, regulation, and the environment are also central.

Of course, next week could come and go with nary a peep about the future from any of the justices. Lately, speculation has centered on the possibility that Rehnquist - who by all accounts loves his job - may not be ready to retire just yet.

But one thing is clear: The interest groups on both sides will continue to rev their engines, keep gathering research on potential nominees, and keep their partisans ready for the moment they've all been waiting for.

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