WASHINGTON FJB — WASHINGTON -- The powerful Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which opened a drive yesterday against Senate confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, will aim its campaign at the 66 senators whose votes last year fell one short of overriding President Bush's veto of the 1990 civil rights bill.
Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference, said at a news conference that the organization would call upon all senators "not to make a decision . . . until they have had an opportunity to weigh all the evidence."
But he added, "There's no question that our principal targets . . . would be those 66 senators."
It was the Leadership Conference -- a coalition of 185 labor, religious, civil rights, women, minority, disabled and senior citizen groups -- that led the successful effort in 1987 to deny Judge Robert H. Bork a Supreme Court seat.
Mr. Neas said the evidence showed that Judge Thomas, President Bush's nominee to succeed re tiring Justice Thurgood Marshall, "has not demonstrated a commitment to equal opportunity and equal justice under the law, the most basic requirement for any Supreme Court justice." Instead, Mr. Neas said, the controversial black conservative has "demonstrated a consistent hostility to many of the Supreme Court's most fundamental civil rights decisions."
Representatives of several mem ber organizations of the Leadership Conference attended the news conference to express their support for the coalition's decision.
Harriett Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus -- and a former lieutenant governor of Missouri -- said that Judge Thomas "entertains bizarre legal notions that could have dire consequences for women." She said she was referring to his statements of support for the notion of "natural law."
Wade Henderson, the chief Washington lobbyist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- a critical element in the Leadership Conference -- said that Judge Thomas would be "an unpredictable element in an increasingly hostile and radical Supreme Court."
Said Joseph Rauh, an 80-year-old veteran of the civil rights movement, "Don't laugh. . . . We're going to beat Clarence Thomas."
In response to the Leadership Conference's opposition, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the coalition's announcement "ignores" the judge's record and "reflects [the coalition members'] liberal political agenda."
"This predictable opposition simply shows again that they are out of touch with mainstream America," said Mr. Fitzwater, speaking to reporters at President Bush's vacation retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. John Danforth, the Missouri Republican who has been Judge Thomas' political mentor for nearly two decades and is his chief Senate sponsor for the court nomination, attacked the Leadership Conference as "a group of self-anointed professional activists."
"The support for Clarence Thomas is grass roots," Mr. Danforth said. "He is doing very well in the Senate, and I am convinced that [he] will be confirmed."
But Mr. Neas estimated that "at least" 65 of the Senate's 100 members are "truly uncommitted" -- de spite a White House lobbying effort that he said "had little to do with the public record."
Supporters of Judge Thomas have estimated that 55 to 64 senators are prepared to vote for his confirmation.
Most members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will begin hearings Sept. 10, were taking the position of the committee's Democratic chairman, Delaware's Joseph R. Biden Jr., and reserving judgment.