Thursday, July 21, 2005

The White House’s heavily orchestrated campaign to quickly define Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. to America and the U.S. Senate — using the Republican Party’s top strategist and a well-respected former senator — has left Democrats and liberal groups flat-footed.

Even before President Bush wielded the hefty power of the presidency by making a prime-time, nationally televised announcement, Karl Rove was working the phones. Mr. Bush’s top political adviser called such key conservative leaders as C. Boyden Gray, former Attorney General Edwin Meese III of the Heritage Foundation and Leonard Leo, the executive vice president of the Federalist Society and the head of Catholic outreach for the Republican Party.

Meanwhile, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie — working out of the West Wing office granted to him to manage Mr. Bush’s Supreme Court confirmation battle — put into action a complex plan to win the early public relations battle to define Judge Roberts, on Capitol Hill and beyond.

The aggressive early onslaught has worked for these earliest days, said Charlie Black, a Republican strategist with close ties to the White House.

“The left-wing groups have blinked, and some of them have not gone out with their advertising yet,” he said.

“We knew going in that the left-wing groups had 50 or 60 million bucks to run a public campaign against the nominee. So naturally, our side went out and did planning and raised money to prepare for that kind of fight,” Mr. Black said.

Just 36 hours after Mr. Bush named his nominee, a new Associated Press poll found that Americans favor confirmation of Judge Roberts by a wide margin, 47 percent to 24 percent, with the rest undecided.

Top Democrats also spent the past two days expressing admiration for Judge Roberts.

“This is a credible nominee, and not one that — as far as we know now — has a record that in any sense could be described as extremist,” Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said yesterday.

Democrats were hamstrung, said former Clinton pollster Dick Morris, noting that senators unanimously put Judge Roberts on the federal bench in 2003.

“They can’t now flip and vote against him,” he said. “The very fact that the Dems … let this nomination go through shows they didn’t have any real objections to him.”

From the beginning, part of the White House strategy was to define the 50-year-old’s accomplished record: federal appeals court judge, multimillionaire, summa cum laude graduate from Harvard in three years and magna cum laude graduate from Harvard’s law school.

In his introductory speech at the White House State Dining Room, the president played up Judge Roberts’ working-class past — he worked summers in a steel mill to help pay his way through college and was captain of his high school football team.

The White House decided — in an attempt to “humanize him,” one senior White House official said — to let Judge Roberts bring his wife, Jane, and their two children to the introduction. His younger child Jack, 4, made a spectacle of himself with his fidgety flights of fancy — images replayed on cable news and comedy shows.

The campaign began shortly after dawn the next day, when the president had coffee with his nominee and sent him to Capitol Hill. Popular former Sen. Fred Thompson shepherded him through the first of two days of photo opportunities with the lawmakers who will decide his fate.

Mr. Bush and top White House officials had already laid the groundwork on Capitol Hill, reaching out to 70 senators in the days before the president made his nomination.

“The consultation that the president had with the senators and the White House soliciting our views really made things easier because this place worships process,” said Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican.

The White House even took the unusual step of employing the services of House members, who have no formal role in the confirming federal judges.

Skip Brown, spokesman for the conservative House Republican Study Committee, said the group’s chairman, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, and several other members “were approached to help in the confirmation fight.”

“The administration is putting more effort into this,” said a House leadership source. “We don’t get approached for this stuff on a normal basis.”

Senate Democrats — apparently surprised that the president had not sought to replace the high court’s first woman and most notable model with a like nominee — rushed to announce that they would take a “wait-and-see” approach.

Although several liberal groups such as NARAL-Pro Choice America and People for the American Way, denounced Judge Roberts, none came forward with ready-made ads.

But Progress for America, a conservative group with close ties to the White House, began a $1 million ad campaign — and plans to spend $17 million more. The first ad mentions Judge Roberts’ unanimous approval to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

“Colleagues call him brilliant and praise his integrity and fair-mindedness,” the announcer says. “Urge the Senate to give John Roberts a fair up-or-down vote.”

The level of orchestration was such that the White House even dispatched Vice President Dick Cheney’s press secretary to Ellicott City, Md., yesterday to script a three-minute public appearance by Mr. Roberts’ parents and sisters.

“The best brother anyone could ever have,” gushed sister Peggy Roberts, reading from a prepared statement. “He provides us with his common sense, guidance, support and wisdom, whenever we need it.”

“And sometimes when we don’t,” added sister Barbara Burke.

• Bill Sammon contributed to this report.

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