By MARGARET TALEV
January 21, 2006
When John Roberts arrived at his confirmation hearings in September, with his polish, his encyclopedic memory and his bipartisan, legal-establishment fan club, he faced no filibuster and an abbreviated advertising campaign by liberal critics who opposed him. With little need to defend Roberts in a Republican-controlled Senate, conservative groups conserved their war chests and waited.
Now Samuel Alito is up for confirmation to a second high court opening for President Bush - the one that would give conservatives presumptive control of the long-divided, nine-member court. While Roberts replaced a fellow conservative, the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Alito would replace retiring swing vote Sandra Day O'Connor. For that reason, liberal groups fear Alito's impact more than Roberts'.
But at Alito's confirmation hearings last week, activists seemed sapped of venom, and seats in the room were often empty. The anti-Alito television campaign is hardly at saturation levels.
Leading up to the hearings, the primary coalition of groups opposing Alito spent about $700,000 on five ads on cable TV and in the nation's top 100 broadcast markets, according to estimates released by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
IndependentCourt.org, a coalition of major abortion, gay and civil rights groups and unions, has announced the launch of a new television ad nationwide but declines to say how much it is spending. Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, a member of the coalition, said he wouldn't release "strategic information for the other side."
Neas wasn't as secretive when his group was putting major money into TV ads last year - a $5 million campaign to preserve filibusters in the Senate.
Progress for America, the chief money repository for advocacy of Bush nominees, spent just $600,000 on four spots supporting Alito before his hearings, according to the data released by the Brennan Center. The Progress for America Voter Fund said it's spending another $250,000 on a TV ad highlighting Democratic lawyers' support for Alito.
All told, Progress for America's Executive Director Chris Myers said, the group spent about $5 million combined since last summer on ads for all three of the president's nominees: Roberts, Alito, and, in between, White House Counsel Harriet Miers, who dropped out under pressure not from liberals but from conservatives unhappy with her credentials.
In the cases of Alito and Roberts, Myers said, "Dollars never materialized on the other side to the degree that we would have to spend more."
Moreover, Myers said, "The two nominees here were damn good, and that's the impetus in a lot of this. The reality is the qualifications and competence of both of these nominees made it too high of a bar for the liberal special-interest groups to smear them successfully."
Last year, when the first opening in 11 years on the nation's highest court looked likely, liberal and conservative groups launched major fundraising drives. Progress for America pledged $18 million to support Bush's first nominee. People for the American Way and other groups inclined to oppose any Bush nominee solicited millions by warning about the future of abortion rights and other issues.
Warming up for the big fight, Democrats filibustered the president's federal appeals court nominees. Republicans pushed back, threatening the "nuclear option," a rule change that would eliminate filibusters of judicial nominees.
Groups opposing Alito reject the idea that they haven't put up the sort of fight they promised their donors.
"Both sides are spending enough money to get the message out there," Neas said. "The really important thing is the grass-roots message."
He said opponents last week submitted to senators a petition with more than 1 million signatures.
"We've just begun," said Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice, three days into Alito's testimony. She suggested the pace might pick up before senators vote.
"With Roberts, there was an air of inevitability from the beginning," Aron acknowledged. Alito is different, she said, because of his longer record on the federal appeals bench, his more pronounced past statements on abortion and other social issues, and the fact he would replace O'Connor.
"The answer to whether or not it will go all the way to a filibuster has a lot to do with what senators are hearing from their constituents," said Ben Brandzel, of the liberal MoveOn.org's political action committee. "I think it's just too early to say whether the fight met the challenge because the fight's not over."
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