Challenge to nominee goes from capital to the country

August 01, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The tide has not turned against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas -- at least not yet -- but the waters of opposition rose noticeably yesterday and apparently will soon start spreading from Washington into grass-roots America.

The strong and unqualified commitments to oppose Judge Thomas by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the AFL-CIO set the stage, strategists within the opposition said, for a spreading challenge from scores of organizations that make up the civil rights community.

Within the next week, the 185-organization Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is expected to follow the NAACP and the AFL-CIO -- two of its most significant members -- into the fray, adding to an "anti" coalition dimensions not seen since the same groups brought about Judge Robert H. Bork's defeat for a Supreme Court seat four years ago.

"This is beginning to smell like a real fight," said one key civil rights strategist, asking not to be identified as he discussed how the opposition campaign is likely to take shape.

Those strategists were beginning to sense yesterday, as they had not in the four weeks since President Bush named Judge Thomas as his choice to succeed retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall, that they could now seriously threaten the nomination. To a person, they see the fight as extremely difficult -- a head-on confrontation with a popular president to defeat a black nominee whose blackness itself will make it harder for the Senate to say no.

The symbolic value of the NAACP opposition was cited as one factor behind a new belief that defeat may yet be attainable. That belief was buoyed when the nation's oldest and largest organization representing blacks said -- by a reported 49-1 vote of its board -- that it still wanted a black justice on the court but definitely did not want this one.

Stressed as more significant, however, by those within the top command of the "anti" coalition, was that both the NAACP and the AFL-CIO have the capacity to make a grass-roots campaign against Judge Thomas more credible.

Although most of what has been said and done about the Thomas nomination has occurred here in Washington over the past month, with the Bush administration countering every negative with a positive, the fight is now set to shift out of the capital, into heartland America.

There are about six weeks remaining before the Senate Judiciary Committee starts hearings on Judge Thomas' nomination, and members of the Senate will be spending most of that time in their home states, over a summer recess.

What the "antis" hope to do between now and Labor Day week is to build up a "public education" campaign against Judge Thomas, based on his conservative public record, so strong that senators would start to hear significant complaints from their constituents -- enough, perhaps, to lead them to return to Washington deeply skeptical of the nominee.

The "anti" strategists see the summer debate back home shaping up this way:

* On Judge Thomas' side, his Bush administration handlers are expected to continue to put primary stress on his humble origins, his up-from-rags-and-bias personal history, as an indication that he is man of character who will make a sensitive member of the highest court, and as an argument that he has almost earned the honor.

* On the other side, his foes will seek to convince the public that his views on the rights of women, of blacks and other minorities, and of working-class families -- all of whom need some significant aid from government to get by in life -- are so dangerous that he cannot be trusted with a vote on the court.

Strategists within the opposition coalition are frank, in public and even more so in private, about their concerns over what one of them has called Judge Thomas' "incredible personal story." It will take enormous effort, the strategists suggest, to get senators and their constituents to think of anything else.

But that is exactly what the politicking, speechmaking, advertising and buttonholing at the grass-roots level will be intended to do. The strategists want senators to come back to Washington having developed -- with the help of their constituents -- at least a strong hesitancy about voting for Judge Thomas, so that only a truly spectacular performance by him in televised nationwide hearings could save the nomination.

At a comparable place in time before the Senate hearings on Judge Bork four years ago, the "anti" coalition confronted a widespread assumption that the nominee could not be defeated. They see a similar assumption seeming to prevail for the present -- at least in Washington -- about Judge Thomas' likelihood of winning Senate approval.

But that, they say, merely defines the task that confronts them with six weeks to go before the television cameras are turned on in the Senate's Caucus Room.

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