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4 Democrats on ’08 List to Vote Against Roberts

Times Staff Writer

All but one of the five Senate Democrats viewed as possible 2008 presidential candidates have said they would vote against the confirmation of John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice, underscoring the pressure on party leaders to combat President Bush.

Both parties agree that Roberts is virtually certain to win confirmation later this week after a debate that began Monday. Three of the eight Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including the party’s ranking member, Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), voted for Roberts when the panel approved his nomination to the Supreme Court last week. And some moderate Democratic senators have announced they would vote for him.

But among the senators who might seek the party’s 2008 presidential nomination, only iconoclastic liberal Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) has said he would vote to confirm Roberts. The other potential White House candidates -- Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Evan Bayh of Indiana (Roberts’ home state) -- have said they would oppose Roberts.

This decisive tilt highlights the continuing demand among party activists -- the key early audience for 2008 contenders -- for aggressive resistance to Bush’s key initiatives.

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“I understand that people are conflicted and clearly see this as a vote of conscience, but from a purely political point of view, the Democrat activist base has long been concerned that our party is too accommodating with Bush,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who advised Kerry in 2004.

With polls showing that most Americans support Roberts’ confirmation, some Republicans say a ‘no’ vote would give the GOP ammunition in the 2006 midterm election and the ’08 general election to portray Democrats as obstructionist or subservient to party interest groups.

“It’s obvious that these senators [considered possible presidential aspirants] would rather vote against a nominee that they know to be extremely qualified than risk being chastised by” liberal groups, said Tracey Schmitt, the Republican National Committee spokesperson.

The four senators opposing Roberts charged that he had been evasive in refusing to discuss in detail during the Judiciary Committee hearing his views on recent Supreme Court cases.

“The nominee was not well-served by a process designed to maintain ambiguity rather than resolve it,” Bayh said. “Voting to confirm a nominee to the Supreme Court must be more than an act of faith.”

Advisors to some of the four Democrats said that even though Roberts’ confirmation is almost certainly assured, they saw little political risk for the lawmakers in opposing him -- and considerable danger in voting for him.

Many Democrats say the greatest political threat is that supporting Roberts could leave a candidate vulnerable to attack if a Roberts-led court were to make rulings that antagonized Democratic activists.

“It seems like a lot of the dialogue that was going on among all [the senators] is you don’t want to be tromping around in one of the early primary states when the Supreme Court is making a decision to reverse [the legal right to abortion] and have to defend your vote,” said an advisor to one of the potential Democratic presidential candidates.

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In polls, Roberts hasn’t stirred strong opposition among rank-and-file Democrats. In the most recent ABC/Washington Post survey, 41% of Democrats said the Senate should confirm Roberts, and 37% said the Senate should not. Overall, 55% of Americans surveyed supported Roberts’ confirmation, 26% opposed it, and the rest were unsure.

But civil rights and abortion rights groups and other organizations with strong constituencies within the Democratic Party have staunchly opposed Roberts, and expressed frustration at Democrats backing him.

In Iowa, where caucuses kick off the presidential race, Feingold’s support for Roberts is likely to prompt sharp questions, said Jill June, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa.

“For the party activists, and those are who go to the caucuses ... it will matter a great deal,” she said. “It will be hard to trust a person who traded us off so easily.”

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Most of the potential Democratic presidential candidates outside the Senate -- such as Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark -- have avoided clear positions on Roberts.

An exception is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who said in a radio interview last week, “I probably would have difficulty voting for him” because of his views on civil rights, affirmative action and abortion.

Among the four Senate Democrats opposing Roberts, Kerry leveled the sharpest criticism.

While praising Roberts as “earnest, friendly and incredibly intelligent,” Kerry said Roberts’ record as a lawyer in the administrations of presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush -- as well as his current service as a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals -- raised questions about his views on civil rights, abortion, federal regulation and presidential power.

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Biden, calling his decision “a very close call,” said he would oppose Roberts because “in my view, he did not provide to the American people any assurances that he embraced fully the Constitution’s enduring values when it comes to fundamental constitutional rights.”

Clinton expressed her uncertainty after the confirmation hearings about whether Roberts still supported the conservative positions he took on many issues in memos he wrote during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Citing those memos as well, Bayh said he believed Roberts’ views could have evolved in the intervening years -- but that Roberts had not provided enough information to decide for sure. “We simply do not know enough about his views on critical issues to make a considered judgment,” Bayh said.

Feingold, in declaring his support for Roberts, emphasized the nominee’s credentials and his statements at the confirmation hearing suggesting he would be reluctant to overturn Supreme Court precedents.

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Feingold said he had been convinced that Roberts “will not bring an ideological agenda” to the court.

Feingold’s endorsement surprised many Democratic analysts, because in the early maneuvering, he appeared to be positioning himself to appeal to the activists who initially backed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the 2004 nomination race.

But Feingold seemed to be looking beyond the party primaries when he said he was backing Roberts, in part to set an example for Republicans if a future Democratic president nominated a “Democratic John Roberts” to the high court -- a person with similar qualifications and temperament but with liberal views.


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