It's midmorning on the second day of questioning John G. Roberts Jr., President Bush's nominee for Supreme Court chief justice.
Things are going pretty much like the day before: Democrats are pressing Roberts on voting rights and issues of privacy (translation: Roe v. Wade), and Roberts is looking a little bit like a young Muhammad Ali dancing his way around the hearing room. He's drawn his judicial line about what he is going to say and what he isn't. Steam is rising from Democratic collars, and their Republican colleagues have all but grabbed Roberts's arm and thrown it up in victory. Yesterday, they'd almost stopped asking questions, opting instead for congratulatory speeches.
Don't be fooled, though. There are many rounds to go.
Any evidence you need is right outside the doors of Hearing Room 216 in the Hart office building. When Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) calls a 15-minute break, what was constrained tension inside the room explodes into the corridors.
This is spin city, where both sides jockey to get their word out to an American public preoccupied with Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq and gas prices that require second mortgages.
A bank of cameras lines one wall, and look, there's Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in front of a row of mikes. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is just behind him as Coburn voices his frustration with the Democrats, who he says just aren't giving Roberts a fair shot.
"We want judges who are well qualified. Ginsburg was confirmed with 96 votes. . . . I would hate to see a double standard," Coburn is saying.
A few feet away, Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, the liberal organization that helped defeat the nomination of Robert Bork 18 years ago, is surrounded by reporters, too.
He's got a one-liner that he's working about Roberts, who in his introductory remarks on Monday likened the role of a judge to that of an umpire.
"He's spent his time talking about baseball, now he's playing dodgeball," Neas says, venting his frustration about the nominee. "I think the American people have a right to know the judicial philosophy of Judge Roberts."
Roberts, he says, is being disingenuous, too clever by half, giving answers about privacy, then quickly qualifying them so that they are only, well -- dodges.
Then a reporter listening to Neas is interrupted by a tug on the sleeve.
It's Greg Mueller, president of Creative Response Concepts, who's flacking for conservative groups the Federalist Society and the Judicial Confirmation Network.
"Hey," he says, with a nod in the opposite direction, with what will have to pass for a come-hither look. Mueller's operation has been working the hearing room and hallway like that all week. There are some viewpoints he wants to make sure don't get overlooked in this crowd.
Abigail Thernstrom, the conservative vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is really annoyed at Ted Kennedy's persistent questions on voting rights.
No sooner than Thernstrom is done, Bethanie Swendsen, media coordinator for the Family Research Council, is introducing Tony Perkins. Perkins, president of the conservative group that would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned, says he's pleased with what he's been hearing from Roberts. He likes his philosophy and how he approaches the hearings.
"We're here making sure we're getting what we were promised," he says.
And what's that?
"A judge who practices judicial restraint. Roberts understands the limited role of the court."
"With all the media, these are high-stakes games," Mueller says. "And a little presidential politics are going on here."
"Hey, if Ralph Neas is having a mini-press conference, then we have to make sure that folks get to hear the other side," he says.
Julie Bernstein, communications director for the Alliance for Justice, is working just as hard, getting interviews for her boss, Nan Aron, who along with Neas and Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, are well known activists working to oppose the nominations of conservative judges.
"Since seating is so restrictive, we try and connect reporters to leaders in the civil rights and women's rights communities so they can share their reactions with press," says Bernstein, who doesn't have a seat in the hearings. She has to watch it on television, then get on scene during the breaks.
Her boss is doing more than working the hall. Aron is meeting with senators and liberal groups that have come to lobby their representatives against Roberts.
Aron didn't get home until almost midnight Tuesday, she says, and was up yesterday by 4 a.m., getting ready for another day of the message wars.
Even the seating in the hearing room seems to be divided into camps, with Aron, Neas and allies such as Kim Gandy, of the National Organization for Women, and Debra Ness, of the National Partnership for Women & Families, on one side of the room. Thernstrom and others are seated across the aisle.
"What we do now will establish how they handle future nominations," Aron said of the Bush administration. "This is the time to send the White House a message. That helps frame [the debate for] filing the O'Connor seat."
Ding! That's the bell for the next round.