A national pollster for groups opposing the nomination of Appeals Court Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court said yesterday that voters in his surveys view the nomination as a highly political battle in which senators should assess Bork's ideology, as liberal organizations are urging them to do.
Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman, reporting on "focus groups" with voters in Pennsylvania on July 29 and Alabama on Aug. 18, said that Democratic and Republican voters believe President Reagan "had political, partisan and ideological motives" for nominating Bork, and that senators have a right to respond in kind.
While analysts rarely generalize from groups such as these -- four intensive discussion sessions, each with 12 voters from states whose senators are considered "swing votes" in the Bork fight -- the groups tapped a number of voter sentiments that liberal groups said they view as potentially potent in mobilizing opposition.
Pro- and anti-Bork forces are escalating their battle for the American heartland in these closing weeks of the congressional recess -- when many senators are close to home and within earshot of constituents. Confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin in the Senate a week after Congress returns from Labor Day recess.
Based on recent national polls and on Hickman's surveys in Alabama and Pennsylvania, the grass-roots appears very much up for grabs. Despite the escalating war of words between opposing camps, Hickman said the 48 voters in his groups knew virtually nothing of substance about Bork other than what they had heard from Reagan in speeches or radio addresses.
Alabama and Pennsylvania are the targets of mobilizers from both sides because they are home to Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), swing votes on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is to recommend or oppose Bork's confirmation.
Hickman said abortion is the only substantive issue on which the Alabama and Pennsylvania voters appeared to know Bork's views. (He has criticized the landmark abortion rights decision of Roe v. Wade as unconstitutional.)
A Washington Post-ABC News poll of 1,205 voters earlier this month showed 55 percent had not heard or read of Bork's nomination. A CBS News-New York Times poll in late July found 63 percent of respondents had not heard enough about Bork to form an opinion about him.
"People are unaware of the stakes of the decision" on Bork, Hickman said. As a result, "it's not now perceived to be a monumental decision facing the country," he said. "So senators have extremely wide latitude in considering the nomination," without fear of recriminations at the polls.
Hickman said that only when he suggested that Bork's vote could tip the court against abortion rights, privacy rights and other personal issues directly affecting voters did members of the groups become upset about the nomination.
He said one issue with strong political promise was Bork's record of voting on the side of business plaintiffs against government regulatory agencies, but against consumers suing those agencies. In Alabama, he said, this tapped a populist vein. "You heard them raising the phrase 'moneyed interests,' " when this pattern was emphasized, Hickman said.
The National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), which sponsored the survey and views Bork as a threat to its prime interest, said the survey showed that the Bork nomination has significance to average voters on a wide range of issues. NARAL said it will share the results with a large coalition of labor, civil rights, civic and women's organizations organizing opposition to Bork.
The groups are buying television and newspaper advertisements, conducting teach-ins, setting up booths at local fairs and enlisting their national membership in efforts to contact senators.
Meanwhile, a formidable conservative effort also is under way. A number of members of Reagan's "Kitchen Cabinet," including Californian Bill Roberts, who ran Reagan's two gubernatorial campaigns, have launched a $2.5 million media campaign called "We the People," to target senators in 12 swing states.
Conservatives also are mobilizing through the "right-to-life" movement, the Washington-based "721 Group" that rallies support for conservative judicial nominees, several police organizations and others.
Dan Casey, executive director of the American Conservative Union and a leader of the 721 Group, said that the high-profile mobilization of liberals against Bork has worked to galvanize conservatives in his favor.
He said he and other organizers are counseling grass-roots conservatives to tell voters in their states: "Look who's opposing Bork: the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Abortion Rights Action League, the National Organization for Women. What more do you have to say? We know their agenda, and they see Bork as a threat to their agenda. The stakes become fairly clear."