Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, sounds like a swooning Republican when he talks about Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.
"I am impressed with his demeanor, his intelligence, his sense of humor, his modesty," said Conrad. "Absent some bombshell, which I don't expect, I think he will be confirmed and quite handily."
Praise like this is bad news for the nearly 30 liberal special interest groups calling on Democrats to block Roberts's rise to the Supreme Court. But it is good politics for Democrats such as Conrad who are running for reelection in states that President Bush won, according to several senators and strategists.
With the confirmation hearings expected to focus extensively on Roberts's views on abortion, affirmative action and other social issues, a number of Democrats say it would be unwise politically for Conrad and the five other red-state senators to side with liberal groups such as People for the American Way and NARAL Pro-Choice America.
This calculation is a chief reason both sides expect Roberts to be confirmed by the Senate -- with the only real debate among head counters from both parties being how many Democrats will join Republicans in voting yes.
"You are going to be arguing about issues that we all saw Democrats paid a heavy price for in the last election," said Leon Panetta, a former Democratic House member who served as Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff. "Democrats have a tremendous opportunity right now to hit Bush where he's weak, which is on oil prices and the war. Don't hit him where he's strong, which is these values issues."
With the hearings two days away, Republicans and Democrats are carefully weighing the political implications of the Roberts vote for the 2006 congressional elections and the 2008 presidential race.
Nearly six in 10 Americans -- 57 percent -- say the Senate should confirm Roberts to the high court while 22 percent say it should not, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. That's virtually identical to the results of a Post-ABC poll taken immediately after Bush nominated him five weeks ago, suggesting the drumbeat of criticism from liberal groups has had little effect.
If anything, the intense scrutiny of Roberts's record as a lawyer and judge may be benefiting the nominee, the survey suggests. Four in 10 -- 39 percent -- said the more they heard about Roberts, the more they liked him, while 28 percent said new information has made them feel less favorable toward the nominee. Most of the positive movement has occurred among Republicans and political conservatives, and much of the erosion occurred among Democrats and liberals, according to the poll.
Republicans say they expect to benefit politically no matter how Democrats vote, as long as Roberts is confirmed. Several GOP officials said a resounding victory would safely inoculate Republican candidates from charges that Roberts holds legal views that are anathema to the rights of women and minorities, as Democrats plan to contend in the hearings.
At the same time, some White House officials argue that a close vote would allow GOP candidates to wage a successful battle on cultural issues with Democrats in Republican-leaning states, as they did during the past two elections, according to Republican strategists familiar with White House planning.
If this happens, "Democrats will run into what Tom Daschle ran into in South Dakota: You will not be able to toe the liberal line in Washington and communicate about values with constituents back home," said a strategist privy to White House deliberations, referring to the senator's reelection defeat.
But Republicans acknowledge they must also tread carefully around volatile issues. Democrats, GOP operatives say, succeed when they cast cultural debates broadly -- making the argument about civil rights rather than affirmative action, or women's rights rather than abortion.
"I do think not just the administration but the conservative movement sometimes have a difficult time not playing pure defense" when it comes to debates about the court and cultural conservatism, said Sean Rushton of the conservative Committee for Justice. "If Roberts gets more votes because he is perceived as squishy and not particularly conservative . . . that will be bad for Republicans in the election," because it could depress voter turnout among social conservatives, he said.
Some Democratic strategists predict Roberts could get as many as 80 votes, including a majority of Senate Democrats, aides say. The only Republican senators considered potential no votes are the handful of moderates who represent states in the Northeast, including Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island. Based on preliminary estimates provided by both sides, roughly 45 senators are considered certain to back Roberts, 15 are considered highly likely to vote for him and 20 or so are considered potential supporters.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to begin hearings Tuesday, with a final vote on the nominee expected by early October. In past confirmation fights, the nominee typically began the hearings under the presumption he or she would be confirmed. But, as Robert H. Bork, Clarence Thomas and many others before can attest, nominees often face unexpected challenges to their confirmation under the gaze of Senate hearings.
In meetings with senators and staff, Ralph G. Neas, a leading advocate for Roberts's defeat, says polling conducted for his group and others shows moderates and independents -- widely considered the swing voters in elections -- strongly oppose Roberts's judicial views on the rights of women and minorities and court deference to presidential power.
Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way, says the only way Democrats can successfully carry this message into the election is if the majority of them vote against Roberts -- and then cite his rulings as evidence of a conservative court usurping the freedoms of individuals.
"Those Democrats who vote for Roberts would miss the opportunity to criticize with credibility Bush, Republicans and the court because they were complicit in his confirmation," said Neas. He points to the elections of 1992 -- the "Year of the Woman" -- when voters elected Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and others in the wake of the stormy hearings over Thomas as proof that confirmation votes can tip elections. But the political landscape has changed over the past decade, and Democrats such as Conrad and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) have a fresh example of dangers for Democrats in Bush country. In 2004, Daschle, the Senate minority leader, was defeated in a campaign dominated by charges that he talked like a conservative when at home, but voted like a liberal in Washington.
Ben Nelson said the opposition of liberal groups is misguided. "Were they expecting someone from the political left?" said Nelson. "I have yet to see anything in [Roberts's] background that I would see as a disqualification."
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a freshman, said he has an open mind heading into the hearings and feels no pressure to side with liberals. "My state is unlike most others -- it is a microcosm of the entire country," he said. "I have got everything from extreme left to extreme right."
Staff writer Jo Becker and polling director Richard Morin contributed to this report.