WASHINGTON -- The White House tried yesterday to put out a political brush fire over the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, announcing that Chief of Staff John H. Sununu had appealed to two conservative groups to cancel a commercial that attacks three Democratic senators.
But the two organizations spurned the appeal, and interest groups on both sides announced plans to pursue the public relations battle over Judge Thomas' nomination, which is to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
The commercial, produced by the Conservative Victory Committee, a political action committee, and Citizens United, a lobbying group that was involved in the 1988 Willie Horton advertisement attacking Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee, was ostensibly created to support the nomination of Judge Thomas.
But it consists mainly of harsh attacks on three Democratic senators who have long been targets of Washington's conservative lobby for their opposition to the 1987 Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork. They are Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts; and Sen. Alan Cranston of California.
In a clear effort to drive its objections home, the White House announced that Mr. Sununu, at President Bush's direction, had personally phoned the two conservatives who produced the commercial and told them the president wanted it taken off the air.
But even as the White House tried to escape the embarrassment of the commercial, Floyd Brown, chairman of Citizens United, and L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the Conservative Victory Committee, handed the administration another embarrassment by refusing to comply with Mr. Bush's appeal.
At the same time, the Christian Coalition, a political organization founded in 1989 by the Rev. Pat Robertson, the television evangelist, announced plans for a $500,000-to-$1-million campaign on behalf of Judge Thomas.
And the leaders of six organizations opposing the Thomas nomination, including the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Abortion Rights Action League and the Women's Legal Defense Fund, set a news conference for this morning to VTC promote their own efforts.
What concerned White House officials about the television commercial was that even if they were able to prove there was no direct link between it and the administration, there was a risk that Mr. Bush could be tainted by it, just as he has been dogged by the Horton commercial.
The commercial was widely criticized as pandering to racial fears because Horton was black and his victims were white. While the Bush campaign disavowed the commercial, it did run a commercial attacking the Massachusetts furlough program that showed prisoners, most of them black or Hispanic, going in and out of a revolving door.