WASHINGTON – Sen. Arlen Specter (search) is working the phones and embarking on a media blitz in an attempt to cement his standing as future chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (search) in the face of demands from conservatives that he be passed over.
Senate leaders are being pressured to deny Specter, the only Republican abortion rights senator on the Judiciary Committee, the chairmanship spot he's due because of his seniority.
Without any change in the support of the leaders who backed his re-election last week, the Pennsylvania Republican is likely to take over as chairman of the committee that will consider President Bush's judicial nominees.
Specter embarked on a public campaign Monday to help repair the damage from his comment last week that anti-abortion judges would be unlikely to be confirmed by the Senate. He told CNN, "I think I can help the president and I think I can help the country."
Republican Conference chairman Rick Santorum (search), a fellow Pennsylvanian and one of the Senate's leading conservatives, put out a general statement of support for Specter last Thursday. "I look forward to working with Senator Specter to guarantee that every judicial nominee put forth by President Bush has an up or down vote," he said.
An aide said Monday that Santorum would defer to the decision of the Senate Judiciary Republicans, who will vote on who their chairman should be.
Conservatives are inundating those senators with calls and e-mails trying to sway those votes.
One GOP senator on the Judiciary Committee who asked not be identified because of the sensitivity of the debate said his office received more than 1,000 phone calls Friday opposing Specter. The senator said that was the most phone calls on one subject since the gay marriage debate in July.
The current chairman, Orrin Hatch of Utah, is stepping aside because of a self-imposed Republican rule limiting the lenghth of time a senator can head a particular committee.
No one in the Senate has openly opposed a Specter chairmanship, aides said, although several senators have said they wanted to talk to him before he gets the job.
"Very rarely do they speak out against other members," said Rev. Pat Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, who wants Specter voted down. Republican leaders "are putting their finger in the air and seeing which way the wind is blowing. This drama still has to be played out."
Mahoney said conservative groups plan to protest Specter's possible chairmanship at the Capitol next week, and are working to turn votes and the Senate leadership against his future chairmanship.
"This isn't what we worked for," he said. "It sends the exact wrong message to the core of the Republican Party that helped win this election. No matter what Senator Specter says, there is a complete lack of trust between him and us now, no matter how much he tries to do damage control."
Senators are taking statements Sunday by White House political adviser Karl Rove as White House support for the moderate Specter, Senate aides said.
Rove told "Fox News Sunday" that Specter assured the president that he would make certain that all appellate nominees receive a prompt hearing and reach the Senate floor. "Senator Specter's a man of his word, and we'll take him at his word," Rove said.
Moderate Republicans also have been trying to prop up Specter.
"The Senate system is based on seniority," GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said Sunday. "Senator Specter's seniority puts him next in line. And I think any effort to deny him his chairmanship will fizzle."