WASHINGTON – Democrats jumped off the sidelines swinging. And reinvigorated Republicans rallied to the president’s pick.

President Bush’s choice Monday of Samuel Alito Jr. for the Supreme Court restored regular political order to the Capitol just days after Harriet Miers’ topsy-turvy nomination was yanked in the face of relentless conservative opposition and a muted Democratic reception.

Democrats accused Bush of caving into “an extreme faction” and said Alito would move the Supreme Court decisively to the right. Republicans said he was a “sterling” nominee well within the mainstream.

It’s a fresh fight that Bush may welcome as a distraction from his myriad political problems – from the torpedoed Miers nomination to the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide.

The battle lines over Alito couldn’t have been more quickly or more clearly drawn. With abortion a certain focal point of the fight, Bush’s third nominee for the court may spark the all-out war that many have anticipated for months.

The nomination could even put the Senate back on the brink of a partisan meltdown, if Democrats decide to use a filibuster to block Alito from getting a full Senate vote – a tactic they refused to rule out Monday.

“This is a needlessly provocative nomination,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said: “Word is that they could not find a woman conservative enough to meet the demands of this radical right wing that this White House is so in tune with. … We’ll see if, during the 15 years that (Alito has) been a judge, it’s as bad as some of the writers say.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., was less critical but still expressed skepticism, noting that conservatives are “jumping for joy.”

“I want to give him a chance, I want to hear what he has to say, but if the president was trying to serve the narrow political interests (of conservatives), that is not a good starting point,” Durbin said.

Asked about a filibuster, Reid said it was too early to threaten such a move but added: “I would say all the options are open to us.”

Republicans were just as effusive as Democrats were critical.

“President Bush has hit a home run by selecting Sam Alito,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Anyone would be hard-pressed to name another nominee with such a sterling and distinguished record.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., another committee member, said Alito “brings extraordinary experience, impeccable integrity and a full understanding of the role of a judge in our American system of government.”

With such sharp rhetoric coming from the left and right, the power center may lie with the 14 moderate senators who negotiated a delicate truce earlier this year that avoided the so-called nuclear option. That is a rule change proposed by the GOP to prevent Democrats from using filibusters to block Bush’s judicial nominees. The 14 senators agreed that a filibuster could only be used on nominee in “extraordinary circumstances.”

Several of the 14 senators issued ambiguous statements Monday that gave no hint of their leanings on Alito.

One of the 14, Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, said in an interview he didn’t see how Alito’s nomination could be considered worthy of filibuster. “He is within the mainstream of conservative judges,” DeWine said.

With Republicans holding a 55-seat majority in the Senate, it would be difficult for Democrats to defeat the nominee. But an all-out war may suit both the president and his Democratic opponents.

The likely Senate battle comes at a moment of political peril for Bush, who has seen his poll ratings sink in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, mounting casualties in Iraq and the indictment last week of a top administration aide.

Trying to right himself after being blown off course by that mix of missteps and bad news, Bush succeeded Monday in cheering his conservative allies, as well as providing a distraction from the criminal charges looming over I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the aide indicted Friday in the CIA leak case.

From the Democratic perspective, at least two things are clear amid the current political turmoil: Bush is vulnerable and can’t afford another big political loss. But a major fight holds political risk for them as well. A filibuster battle that brings the Senate to a standstill could allow the GOP to paint them as obstructionist.

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As senators braced for battle, outside groups also mobilized election-style campaigns they’d drawn up months or even years ago in anticipation of a high court vacancy.

The conservative Committee for Justice sent out a lengthy e-mail detailing Alito’s career and providing a point-by-point rebuttal to liberal criticism.

“Judge Alito is the kind of judge the American people want: brilliant and highly qualified, dedicated to the Constitution and rule of law,” the e-mail said.

Meanwhile, People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, vowed to “wage massive national effort” to defeat Alito. “Replacing a mainstream conservative like Justice O’Connor with a far-right activist like Samuel Alito would threaten Americans’ rights and legal protections for decades,” said Ralph Neas, the group’s president.

Abortion rights groups, too, signaled they would go all-out.

“Now the gauntlet has been, I think, thrown down,” Kate Michelman, former president of NARAL-Pro Choice America, said in a statement.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, declined to set a specific timeline for confirmation hearings, noting the committee would have to examine thousands of cases and opinions Alito has been involved in or written. “We’re going to do it right and we’re not necessarily going to do it fast,” Specter said.


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