POLITICAL BRIEFING

COURTING TROUBLE: As the dust settles from the bitter struggle over Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court, court watchers anticipate further battles as vacancies occur.

Some view this as an inevitable result of the court's active involvement in high-profile political issues--ranging from race relations to abortion rights. "The court is seen as dealing with issues about which constituencies really care," University of Chicago political scientist Gerald Rosenberg said.

Because of the close link to politics, battles over court nominations take on all the unsavory trappings of modern political campaigns. "When you have intense interest-group politics over something like extending unemployment benefits, you can expect it over Supreme Court nominees," Prof. Mark Tushnet of Georgetown University said.

Another reason for the partisan friction over court nominees is the split between the Republican White House and the Democratic-controlled Senate. Some scholars believe that, unless the GOP can recapture the Senate, the best way for President Bush to avoid future confirmation battles is to take the Senate's advise-and-consent role more seriously--by consulting with Senate Democratic leaders before making his choice. Such collaboration, Duke University law professor Walter Dellinger says, would produce agreement on "a truly distinguished list of persons who would be neither from the right nor the left end of the political spectrum."

HOW'M I DOING? Aides to Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the two Democrats competing most aggressively for the new-ideas slot in the 1992 presidential race, are anxiously watching early reviews of their first campaign swings. Some around Kerrey worry that the perception is solidifying among insiders that he brings to the race more excitement but less substance than Clinton. "You can't go all the way through life being the candidate of excitement," one adviser fretted. Clinton sympathizers, meanwhile, worry about his slow start on building a campaign organization. Others fear that Clinton, hoping to avoid alienating liberal primary voters, has so muted his call for the party to reform that his message may be losing its distinctive edge.

BACK TO THE FUTURE: Now that Bush has taken the first legal steps toward launching a reelection bid, Republican strategists have begun to look ahead to who will become the GOP's standard-bearer in 1996.

The Cabinet may provide fertile ground. The most likely prospects are Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, who competed with Bush for the 1988 nomination; Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, whose prestige got a big boost from the Persian Gulf War; Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Bush confidant whose political ambitions are said to be undiminished, and Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, assigned to ramrod through the education proposals that highlight Bush's meager domestic agenda.

Not to be overlooked is another participant in Cabinet meetings, Vice President Dan Quayle. Despite poll evidence of his low public esteem, some see him as the early front-runner because of his identification with Bush and the opportunities that his job gives him to command media attention.

Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV are viewed as potent contenders for backing from the party's conservative cadre, and California Gov. Pete Wilson is considered a potentially formidable champion of party moderates.

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