Television commercials in the battle over John G. Roberts's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court have been a bit like official Washington in August -- laid-back, low-key and sparse. The only thing missing is the blazing heat.
Both sides were baring claws last month when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor resigned. In fact, the conservative group Progress for America had the jump on everybody in June, launching an ad campaign that warned of the Democrats' impending underhandedness before there even was a court vacancy.
Not to be outdone, the liberal MoveOn PAC fired off a shot July 1, the very day O'Connor resigned. Its ad, called "Protect Our Rights," invoked the Terri Schiavo case and urged the selection of a moderate jurist for the high court, not an extremist who would invade Americans' private lives. The almost $280,000 ad aired on CNN in Maine, Nebraska, South Carolina and Virginia and on CNN and Fox in New York and the District of Columbia.
Both ads were preemptive -- previews of a coming carnage. So far, however, the recent weeks have been a season of relative civility on television.
The reason, analysts say, can be summed up in two words: John Roberts. His very selection -- with his short paper trail as a jurist and his long list of glowing credentials -- has poured ice water on the ad wars. At least for the time being.
"Well, we thought it was going to be more politicized than it has turned out to be," says Brooks Jackson, director of the Washington-based ad watchdog group FactCheck.org. "We were primed and ready to go, and nobody is running any scurrilous ads. It's leaving us with little to do, darn it."
Little, indeed. There have been only two TV campaigns specifically about the 50-year-old Roberts. The latest was launched last Sunday by IndependentCourt.org, a project of the Coalition for a Fair and Independent Judiciary. The network of about 100 nonprofit and advocacy groups is among those trying to flush out evidence to confirm their suspicion that Roberts is a polished-up activist jurist. Once on the court, they fear, he would threaten everything from abortion rights to affirmative action to voting rights.
Without that evidence, the strategy laid out in the national broadcast ad, "Right to Know," is to demand the White House hand over more documents about Roberts's record. Though the administration has released documents from his Reagan years, it has not honored requests for records from his time in the solicitor general's office of Bush I.
"What kind of Supreme Court justice would John Roberts be?" the 30-second spot asks. As a camera pans photographs of working Americans, a civil rights protest, the faces of women and, later, children, the voice-over continues: "Where does he stand on basic rights? And fundamental freedoms? We need straight answers and a thorough review of his record. And the Bush White House can't continue withholding important documents from senators."
Pretty tame as such things can go. But that, says Wade Henderson, the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and one of the coalition leaders, is just the way the group wants it to be.
"The campaign we've undertaken is to emphasize the fact that this is a confirmation, not a coronation," Henderson says. "Even the most qualified candidate can't be given an automatic pass to the Supreme Court.
"The progressive community really has been pretty consistent in attempting to adopt strategies that have been associated with the right: message discipline, sophistication in our strategic message and looking for spokesmen who embody the values that we are trying to impart.
"What you are looking at is a maturation in the progressive community," Henderson continued. "What we're trying to do is take into account the different audiences that we must appeal to in winning the hearts and minds of the American people."
Progress for America has stuck to the Bush administration's message on Roberts. On July 20, the day the nomination was announced, the group that got its start by helping to elect George W. Bush launched what it described as a $1 million television, radio, e-mail and grass-roots ad campaign titled simply "Brilliant." With a photo of Roberts on the screen, and later footage of him and Bush, the television ad cited his credentials -- including having argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court -- and touted how colleagues praise his "integrity" and "fair-mindedness." The 30-second TV ad then called for a "fair up-or-down vote" on the nomination. It aired nationally for a week on networks including CNN, Fox, MSNBC and the ABC, CBS and NBC Sunday morning talk shows.
There are no immediate plans for another ad at the moment, says spokesman Jessica Boulanger. Like its liberal counterparts, who have taken their energy to constituents outside the Beltway this month, Progress for America has shifted its focus to legislators while they're back in their home districts.
"They are doing everything from hosting evenings to letter campaigns and talk radio, as well as setting up meetings with senators while they are back home in their states," Boulanger said.
That doesn't mean future ads have been ruled out, though.
"We have resources and are prepared to allocate them, if necessary, to defend Roberts from dishonest attacks with paid radio and TV advertising. We've pledged $18 million for ads and grass-roots efforts," she said, but "we will be perfectly happy not spending anywhere near that amount."
Confirmation hearings on Roberts are set to begin on Sept. 6, and until then, left-of-center groups will be looking for some nugget on which to hang their opposition, and their opponents will be poised to respond.
"It's very hard for the groups that might want to oppose this nomination to get anything to wrap their arms around," says Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group, which researches political and public affairs advertising. "You need something really to go against somebody. . . . If you are Pepsi, you need a slogan. . . . If you are against Judge Roberts, you have to be against him for a reason. . . . It's been keeping the ad war around the nomination somewhat tame to date."
"There is no one issue or one memo or one bit of writing that has triggered opposition from groups that I can see," says FactCheck's Jackson. "There's nothing that has really lent itself to a really good 30-second attack. . . . It may happen when things come closer . . . [but] the way to attack has not jelled in any of the minds of the opponents."
Like FactCheck, TNS has had to scale back its expectations.
"It wouldn't have surprised me at all before we had this nominee to see a floor of $30 million spent" on ads, says Tracey. "Now I would say that that might be a ceiling. And it may even be less than that.
"Short of an election, this is the best thing out there right now. This is going to lead the news every night, and groups are going to want to be involved. . . . It helps raise their profiles, and that helps of course with their fundraising."
Jackson, citing Social Security ad campaigns as a recent example of the permanence of non-electoral, paid political media ads, said, "All this institutional energy is just getting rolled over into a permanent political campaign. We may not see it in this particular judicial fight, but that doesn't mean we are not going to see it" again.