The real conversation in the Dirksen Building yesterday was about the next nominee to the Supreme Court.

The Senate Judiciary Committee vote to recommend Judge John Roberts as the 17th chief justice was only partly about him. It was really about who will fill Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's seat and presumably be the defining vote on some of the nation's most divisive issues -- from abortion, to affirmative action, to the very role of judges. That's where the battle is now, where everything hangs in the balance.

It was a day of rhetorical flourish, when senators on both sides of the table could hardly keep their attention on the man expected to run the nation's highest court for at least the next 30 years.

The vote was 13-5 in Roberts's favor with the committee's 10 Republicans being joined by three Democrats.

They were Vermont's Patrick Leahy, who had announced his intentions the day before, and Wisconsin's Sens. Russ Feingold and Herbert Kohl. (George Bush lost Wisconsin in the last election, but it was a battleground state.)

Republicans were doing their best to pry away Democrats, appealing to their "courage," asking them to eschew "partisanship." They repeated the same question: If you can't vote for a judge as qualified as Roberts, then whom can you vote for? They would have liked nothing better than an 18-0 vote for Roberts, a call for the entire Senate to follow suit next week.

The Democrats were wading through an internal struggle.

On one side were those who seem to believe that the best strategy for dealing with the Bush administration is to show a willingness to compromise in the hope of being consulted the next time he decides whom he will nominate.

"I will vote my hopes today and not my fears," Kohl said in casting his vote for Roberts.

On the other side was a fight-to-the-death approach -- the only tactic, some reason, that Bush understands.

Listen to New York's Charles Schumer, never short on words, who cast his "no" vote along with senators Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Dianne Feinstein of California, Joseph Biden of Delaware and Richard Durbin of Illinois: "Indeed, a yes vote here for me might indicate acceptance not only of a nominee's strategic decision to avoid answering important and proper questions about decided cases, but also an administration's decision to thumb its nose at the American people's right to have information about a nominee in the form of important documents.

"That is why that I hope that -- whatever happens with Judge Roberts -- the next nominee will be more forthcoming and will answer more questions about his or her legal views, and that all relevant documents will be provided."

Iowa's Republican Sen. Charles Grassley talked passionately about partisanship, at times with his hand pressed against his chest, as he said he thought the other side seems to have more of a commitment to ideology than to qualifications. He talked of having voted for David Souter -- and being disappointed with his performance on the bench. He talked about voting for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg because the Republicans saw her as a competent person. "Maybe," he said, "there's a whole new ballgame out there."

After those remarks, Leahy jumped in and said, "Let's keep the history straight," calling Ginsburg a consensus candidate, one on whom President Bill Clinton consulted with Republicans before he sent in her nomination. Besides, he said, speaking of partisanship, "you'll find a lockstep vote from Republicans . . . and find a split vote on the Democrats' side."

No one is better at the grand speech, though, than Kennedy, who spoke after Grassley. He said he'd certainly voted for many a Republican-nominated judge but Roberts was lacking on key questions.

"We examined the only written record before us and saw John Roberts, aggressive activist in the Reagan administration, eager to narrow hard-won rights and liberties, especially voting rights, women's rights, civil rights and disabilities rights. . . . Who is John Roberts today? And who will he be as the 17th chief justice of the United States?"

If there was any indication that this fight is just beginning, it was when Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas announced his intent to vote for Roberts and made his plea for Bush to continue to fulfill his campaign promise of nominating more conservative judges.

The right to privacy, he said, is worthy of discussion with the next nominee, as well.

Then Brownback, a passionate abortion opponent, went beyond words. He called to his side Abby Loy, 14, of Brighton, Mich., who has Down syndrome.

"There is a right to live," he said.

Later, he even quoted Lincoln about the "right to rise." Lincoln, Brownback said, was talking about freed slaves.

Yesterday, Brownback said Abby and others like her had a right to rise, too.

Sen. Richard Durbin, above, said, "I hope that -- whatever happens with Judge Roberts -- the next nominee will be more forthcoming." Below, Sen. Charles Schumer, going over his statement, cast a "no" vote on Roberts.Sen. Patrick Leahy, who predicted a split vote from fellow Democrats, speaks to a staffer as the committee debates.