Fifteen foot soldiers newly recruited to the campaign to derail the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. introduced themselves at a recent meeting not only by name but also by offering their reasons for joining the cause.
Their concerns sounded a lot like an anthology of liberal talking points, bringing faint smiles to the faces of the organizers from Rhode Islanders for a Fair Judiciary, which is working to marshal opposition to Alito across the state. Abortion, gay rights, worker rights -- all are imperiled if Alito receives a lifetime appointment to the nation's high court, the volunteers said.
To prevent that from happening, these activists have joined a growing grass-roots campaign aimed at persuading the state's U.S. senators to oppose Alito. And one of those two senators is foremost in their minds: Republican Lincoln D. Chafee, who is up for reelection next year.
Coming from the small liberal wing of his party, Chafee is a supporter of abortion rights whose future is imperiled from both directions. He is facing a conservative challenge in the primary, and if he survives that he faces a general election battle in a distinctly Democratic-leaning state. Few are weighing Alito's nomination more gingerly -- and these activists know it.
This is the mirror opposite of the vulnerability that Alito's supporters are hoping to exploit in states such as Nebraska and North Dakota, which President Bush won easily last year but where Democrats hold Senate seats.
This gives activists on both sides incentives to plunge into the political trenches -- distributing postcards to be mailed to senators, writing letters to the editor, passing out literature extolling Alito's virtues or warning of the dangers he would present if elevated to the high court.
In Providence, one volunteer even offered to prowl downtown streets with a mobile phone and a script, offering passers-by a chance to call Chafee's office on the spot to register opposition to Alito.
"I know some of you might be wondering: Is this going to make a difference? It's only postcards," said Marti Rosenberg, the lead organizer here, who opposed the 1987 Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork. "In the Bork fight, we got nearly 1,000 cards to Senator [John H.] Chafee, the dad. And we did beat Bork."
Backed by the money and know-how of Washington-based advocacy organizations, activists on both sides are duplicating those efforts in about 25 states. In many cases, the grass-roots campaign is being supplemented with television advertising focused on swaying swing-vote senators.
Opponents of the nomination, who are concentrating on states with moderate Republican senators or conservative Democrats, are trying to drive home the argument that Alito is a threat to long-established rights. His confirmation, they say, will put the judiciary in the hands of conservative extremists, threatening the right to abortion, crippling the power of Congress to pass anti-discrimination or gun-control laws, and resulting in more police power over individuals.
Alito's supporters, meanwhile, are trying to apply pressure to Democratic senators from more conservative states by portraying him as a brilliant and restrained jurist committed to narrowly interpreting the Constitution. Any senator who opposes him, they warn, is a captive of liberal groups outside the mainstream.
"If you are a Democratic senator from a state that the president won, the last thing you want to do is be aligned with [liberal advocate] Ralph Neas or groups like People for the American Way," said Keith Appell, a Republican strategist working with organizations supporting Alito's nomination.
Groups on both sides began mobilizing supporters hours after Bush announced Alito's nomination on Oct. 31. But the brewing battle has been largely obscured by the decorum of Alito's courtesy calls to senators, to whom he has offered reassuring words about his 15 years as an appeals court judge. The effort has earned praise from many senators, including some Democrats, who are impressed by Alito's intellect, judicial experience and professed respect for legal precedent.
But if the ritual visits to senators are mostly smiles, small talk and carefully calibrated promises to interpret the law, not make it, the street-level campaign is something else altogether. Both sides are framing their arguments in urgent and emotional words -- hoping to sway what polls suggest is substantial but hardly insurmountable sentiment for Alito to be confirmed. With a quarter to a third of Americans still uninformed or undecided, both sides are working hard to win converts.
"Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito has a 15-year history of judicial decisions that are hostile to our rights," reads the opening line of a flier being circulated by anti-Alito activists here. It calls him a right-wing activist interested in undermining a positive role for government, sanctioning discrimination and "threatening our civil liberties."
Alito's supporters are hardly more nuanced in condemning the motives of opponents. "Their agenda is clear," intones an ad sponsored by a coalition of conservative groups. "They want to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance and are fighting to redefine traditional marriage. They support partial-birth abortion, sanction the burning of the American flag."
Rhode Island's other senator, Jack Reed (D), voted against the confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in September and is widely assumed to take the same stance toward Alito. That leaves Chafee as the real target.
He has said that he would wait for Alito's hearings, scheduled to begin Jan. 9, before deciding how to vote. The nature of his reelection challenge makes the decision on Alito tricky. The senator's Republican primary opponent, Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey, is unabashedly conservative. The likely Democratic nominee -- either former state attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse or Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown -- will be more liberal than either Republican.
Chafee "does not have an easy calculation as to how to play this," said Darrell West, a Brown University political scientist. "The problem with being in the center is you end up getting attacked by all sides."
West added that the grass-roots campaign surrounding the nomination only increases the stakes. "I think advocacy campaigns make a big difference because they put the senator on guard that people are paying attention and that this is a vote that matters," he said.
During their meeting here, the fledgling activists started making plans to bring maximum pressure to bear. "I felt like we didn't have a chance with Judge Roberts," said Brooke Huffman, 26, a youth counselor who suggested the mobile phone idea. "But with Alito, he's such an extremist, there is going to be more opposition."
Social worker Lisa Reichstein, 35, said she rarely gets deeply involved in politics. But calling the Alito nomination a special case, she promised to arrange a happy hour or other social event in hopes of drawing more people for their cause.
"I'm scared. I'm very scared," she said, explaining that she worries most about protecting abortion rights and privacy generally. "Putting Alito in there will absolutely change the balance of the court. We have to stop him."