Within 45 minutes of the announcement of a vacancy on the Supreme Court, the conservative group Progress for America Inc. launched a preemptive e-mail ad against "smear attacks" on President Bush's judicial nominees that reached 8.7 million Americans.
It came 18 years, to the day, of a speech on the floor of the US Senate that rewrote the rules on judicial confirmation fights in Washington. The "Robert Bork's America" speech by Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, nationally televised, stunned the Reagan White House, not just for its sharp content, but for its timing - just 45 minutes after President Reagan announced his nominee on July 1, 1987. The attacks went unanswered for two and a half months, and the nomination failed.
Ever since, interest groups on both sides have adopted the 45-minute rule: Speed matters, and the first to define the nominee for the American public takes a lead that's hard to ever win back.
Even before President Bush announces his first high-court nominee, hundreds of groups are gearing up for a hair-trigger, rapid-response campaign likely to eclipse any court fight before it in high-tech firepower, if not intensity.
Veterans of the campaign against Judge Bork recall long weekly meetings, a constant flow of paper, and relentless searches for a pay phone.
"I remember spending my life on the phone in my office or at pay phones. We didn't have cellphones. Computers were just coming into our lives," says Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice.
Leaders of the anti-Bork coalition met weekly, usually in the offices of the National Education Association, to discuss strategy, firm up ties with grass-roots groups outside the Beltway, and process a vast paper trail: Bork's opinions, writings, and speeches, and studies of them, editorials and press clips, printouts on targeted senators, reports from the field. While the Reagan White House took a vacation, the anti-Bork coalition met on through a steamy August to gear up for explosive confirmation hearings in September. Member groups kicked in funding to pay for a grass-roots campaign that reached 43 states.
By the opening day of hearings, anti-Bork activists had set up a "war room" for rapid response - a prototype for the war room candidate Bill Clinton set up in the 1992 campaign. There, activists prepared "confirmation conversion" memos highlighting discrepancies between Bork's responses to questions and his published writings.
"We were trying to have everything ready for the late afternoon [media] deadlines. It's vastly different from the world you have today," says Ralph Neas, now president for People for the American Way, a group leading opposition to Bush judicial nominees He first learned about the O'Connor resignation on Fox News, but didn't trust the report. Within an hour of confirming it, his group had sent e-mails to more than 400,000 activists asking them to e-mail their senators asking for a bipartisan consultation leading to a bipartisan nominee.
Today's campaign, Mr. Neas says, is vastly more agile and better financed than the war room of the Bork era. Activists report hundreds of groups on both sides of a fight that has already raised more than $20 million on each side. Instead of face-to-face meetings, these megacoalitions, linked by a constant flow of e-mail, thrash out talking points and strategy over conference calls that may include up to 70 participants.
At the time of the Bork nomination, a good activist could count 500 personal contacts. Today's e-mail lists cover millions.
"We all saw Senator Kennedy's speech on the floor within minutes of Judge Bork's nomination and a pattern of behavior on the left to attack the president's nominee. We will use all our resources ... to beat it," says Jessica Boulanger, a spokeswoman for Progress for America, which has publicly committed $18 million to support the president's nominee.
Progress for America spent up to $50 million in support of the president in the 2004 presidential campaign, and is extending that support to the court battles. "We've had a great response from donors across the country. Eighteen million is now a conservative estimate," she says.