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Activists Cool Their Jets As They Wait for Bush

After an initial burst of activity surrounding the vacancy on the Supreme Court, interest groups and partisans on both sides of the potential fight have largely backed off publicly, although privately planning continues apace.

At the moment, none of the major judicial interest groups is running television ads or conducting any polling — a striking change from last month, when a frenzy of strategic positioning preceded the July 1 retirement announcement of Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“It is quiet because of [President] Bush,” said Democratic media consultant Steve Murphy. “He told the wingnuts to shut up and they did. Democrats asked Bush to make some bipartisan gestures and he did.”

The administration is quick to tout that it has reached out to more than 60 Senators, including more than half of the 44 Democrats, since O’Connor’s retirement announcement.

That degree of outreach has made it difficult for Democrats to criticize the process so far, said one Republican official speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“Even though there is always contention between the White House and Democrats below the surface, [the administration] has done a good job of avoiding any public dust-ups,” the official added.

Despite the outward comity, there is an “enormous amount of preparation” going on behind the scenes, Murphy said, with many expecting Bush to name a nominee at the earliest on July 26.

“There are meetings all over town on this every day,” Murphy said.

Many observers had expected Bush to announce a nominee within hours of the O’Connor retirement, and most expected a candidate already in place.

With that scenario now in the scrap heap, the millions of dollars raised by groups ranging from Progress For America on the ideological right to People For the American Way on the left remains largely unspent, as such groups adjust their strategies to fit the president’s timeline.

“Everyone is waiting to see who the nominee will be,” said PFAW President Ralph Neas. “Until that happens, there is lots of speculation but very little commentary going around.”

Though the timing is coincidental, the slowed pace of the nomination process has dovetailed with increased scrutiny of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove’s involvement in the leaking of a CIA operative’s name to the media.

The White House has refused to comment on Rove’s role in the investigation, further driving wall-to-wall media coverage.

Because the court fight has been largely pushed out of the public consciousness, sources familiar with the planning on both sides of the pending fight say much of their work of late has been aimed at keeping their base motivated.

In that vein, PFA held a conference call last Tuesday for like-minded bloggers and is also targeting conservative talk radio programs.

Jessica Boulanger, a spokeswoman for PFA, said the group has field staff in 21 states and is heavily engaged in research on the potential court nominees; “the extent of our involvement is a lot more than paid media,” she noted.

But, it is clear the bulk of PFA’s promised $18 million campaign to confirm Bush’s next nominee remains in its bank account.

The group’s only spending on television so far came from June 22 to July 1 with an ad titled “Get Ready” that sought to establish that no matter the nominee, Democrats would oppose him or her. That buy cost $215,000 and ran only in the Washington, D.C., cable-television market.

The efforts by the Judicial Confirmation Network, another group established to support the next nominee, are also largely muted of late.

JCN is currently running a minute-long Web ad — a typical base-rallying effort — using the recent court ruling on eminent domain as a sign of the creep of liberalism into the judicial branch.

“Our rights have been steadily chipped away for years,” says the ad’s narrator. “The threat is real.”

The ad was co-produced by Chris LaCivita and DMN Media.

A number of Republican sources said that while the idea of polling has been broached in several circles, no major firm has been commissioned to do a survey, because until a nominee emerges, the political environment is far too uncertain to render surveys useful.

Democrats, too, have largely avoided polling since O’Connor announced her retirement, choosing instead to hone a strategy with the aid of a survey conducted by Geoff Garin of Garin-Hart-Yang Research for the Alliance For Justice.

Within the last few weeks, Judiciary Committee Democrats were briefed on the results of the poll, which was conducted June 17-20. Senate chiefs of staff received a similar presentation on July 8.

The principal conclusion of the survey is that Americans, by a 69 percent to 26 percent margin, prefer to “preserve the system of checks and balances ensuring that the courts are not dominated by either political party,” rather than “ensur[ing] all nominees get an up-or-down vote by the full Senate.”

Fully 50 percent of Bush voters in the survey and 64 percent of those in red states favor “checks and balances,” the poll found.

Among the conclusions drawn by Garin, according to a copy of the presentation obtained by Roll Call, is that “with the presidency and Congress controlled by one party, it is more important than ever to have a Supreme Court that is independent and balanced.”

No significant polling has been done on the Democratic side since this survey, said informed party sources.

Of the groups rallying the opposition, only PFAW has run television ads recently. A flight of ads from July 11 to 13 on national cable cost the organization $25,000.

PFAW and its allies “have been preparing for all possible contingencies,” Neas said. “We have been certainly continuing to organize and get ready.”

The silence will be surely broken once Bush does finally choose a nominee.

Progress For America, for instance, plans to air a positive biographical ad on the nominee within 24 to 48 hours of a Bush’s announcement.

“It is imperative that we’re able to define the nominee before the opposition — with their likely premeditated attacks and false outrage, is able to,” Boulanger explained.

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