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Most Senate Contenders Hold Back on Roberts

When it comes to taking a stand on whether federal appellate court Judge John Roberts should be elevated to the Supreme Court, Democratic Senate challengers and open-seat candidates seem to be taking their cues from the incumbents they’d like to join on Capitol Hill: They are reserving judgment, for now.

In a quick survey of the Democrats seeking Senate seats in 2006, the strongest criticism of Roberts by far came from Tennessee state Sen. Rosalind Kurita, one of two Democrats running to replace Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Kurita said she would have “serious reservations” about voting to confirm Roberts.

“John Roberts appears to be well-qualified for the Supreme Court in terms of his legal credentials,” she said. “However, I am disappointed that President Bush would nominate someone whose philosophy seems so far outside the mainstream. Our country deserves a justice in the mold of Sandra Day O’Connor — a moderate who offers a voice of reason on complex judicial issues.”

Kurita’s rhetoric was bolder than that of Rep. Harold Ford Jr., her rival for the Democratic nomination.

Ford was traveling Friday afternoon and could not be reached for comment. But after Bush nominated Roberts last Tuesday night, the Congressman issued a statement saying he was “relieved that the president nominated an accomplished jurist and skilled attorney.”

Ford also called on the Senate “to investigate his record thoroughly.”

Many candidates said they will eagerly monitor Roberts’ confirmation hearings before taking a stand.

“Kelly needs an opportunity to review [Roberts’] record and to listen to the Judiciary Committee hearings,” said Tonya Tennessen, communications director for Kelly Doran, a real estate developer who is one of four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to replace Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.).

Mike Guilfoyle, a spokesman for former Rhode Island Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, one of two Democrats seeking to unseat Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), said his candidate’s position on Roberts could evolve as the hearings progress.

“Check back with us often,” he said.

Jay Reiff, campaign manager for Pennsylvania Treasurer Bob Casey Jr. (D), who is challenging Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), said Casey will “reserve judgment until he hears more about [Roberts]. It’s premature to make declarative statements before the hearings. If not, what’s the point in having them?”

Casey’s position on Roberts could be of particular interest to the groups gearing up to fight his confirmation. Casey is the rare Democratic Senate candidate who opposes abortion rights — and party leaders’ decision to embrace him early in the cycle still rankles some abortion rights proponents.

But the groups themselves are apparently not yet ready to say whether a Senate candidate’s position on the Roberts nomination could determine whether the candidate merits an endorsement.

“Our endorsement criteria remain the same as they’ve been before the Roberts nomination,” said Ramona Oliver, communications director of EMILY’s List, which helps gather financial support for Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights.

Oliver said that while EMILY’s List has not yet taken a position on Roberts’ nomination, the group did send a letter to supporters warning them that Roberts “potentially could be a vote against [abortion rights] — and that concerns us.” She also said that EMILY’s List has been passing along talking points to candidates who may be interested in the group’s endorsement, sharing background information that has been compiled by other liberal groups monitoring the Roberts nomination.

David Seldin, a spokesman for NARAL Pro Choice America, which is already opposing Roberts, was hesitant to “discuss our specific criteria for endorsements.”

“We are reaching out to all Senators” about Roberts, he said. “But as far as our political endorsements, we look to a variety of factors.”

Many campaigns seem reluctant to discuss the political implications of the Roberts vote.

“Probably the best person to ask that question [to] is Sen. Chafee,” said Guilfoyle, Whitehouse’s spokesman.

Several candidates indicated that Roberts’ stand on abortion will be among the top factors they consider as they weigh whether to publicly support or oppose him.

“It is too early to judge his entire record, but I would want to take a close look at his positions on women, children and civil rights before deciding how I would vote,” said child safety advocate Patty Wetterling, one of the Democrats seeking the Senate nomination in Minnesota.

Jeff Weaver, chief of staff for Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for the open seat held by departing Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), said “there are conflicting views in [Roberts’] record” on privacy issues including the Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion. But he said that if Sanders had a vote, he would have other considerations as well.

“Is he going to be a conservative judicial activist, or uphold well-established American legal principles?” Weaver asked. “Also, we need to make sure he will weigh the facts fairly and not be overly deferential to corporate interests versus working people, such as the Bush administration has done.”

Tennessen, the spokeswoman for Doran, said that while Democrats are right to scrutinize Roberts’ record and raise tough questions, they must also face political reality.

“We have a Republican in the White House, and we’re going to have conservative judges nominated,” she said.