WASHINGTON – The battle to cast Supreme Court nominee John Roberts in either a favorable or unfavorable light is occurring mostly off Capitol Hill, where skirmishes are being played out in the media by interest groups who want to praise or question the candidate's judgment.
The emerging strategies are focusing on creating an image of Roberts, which may or may not be true.
Click in the box to the right to watch a report by FOX News' Carl Cameron.
On Thursday, for example, the nominee began his day by loading up the family van and hustling his kids off to summer day camp — an all-American image that delighted the White House.
In contrast, opponents are trying to paint Roberts as a Washington power lawyer and elitist who would not protect the constitutional rights of average Americans. The portrait of a right-winger out of touch with the "mainstream" of America is the effort being put forth by MoveOn.org, whose Web site is topped by this message: "Tell your senators to oppose John Roberts: President Bush has nominated a right-wing lawyer and corporate lobbyist to take Justice O'Connor's (search) seat on the Supreme Court."
Democratic lawmakers deny that they are preparing a class-warfare attack on Roberts. However, Republicans see a theme emerging with questions being posed by the caucus' more liberal members.
"Will the individual fight for the rights of all the American people? That's what this is about," said Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.
Democratic positioning appeared to begin weeks ago with repeated pleas for the president to listen to their advice and avoid what they called a divisive nomination. But unlike the derailed nomination of Robert Bork in 1987, whom Democrats were able to demonize for what they called his radically conservative ideology, Republicans are working overtime to present Roberts as a fair-minded mainstream conservative.
On the flip side, some conservatives are asking if Roberts really is one of them, or if he is instead a very bright lawyer whose constitutional philosophy is yet to be shaped and could go either way once he gets on the court.
Shannen Coffin, a constitutional law expert with Steptoe & Johnson and a friend of Roberts, said the nominee's approach to the "french fry case" on the D.C. Circuit Court is an indicator how he will rule on the bench. In that case, Roberts upheld the law, even though he agreed that it was a bit draconian for a young girl to be detained by police for three hours for eating a french fry on the D.C. Metro subway, where food is prohibited.
"The police had probable cause to arrest her and all Judge Roberts did was apply the law that was before him, apply the 14th Amendment and apply Supreme Court precedent," Coffin told FOX News.
He added that Roberts' personal life is an indicator of his conservative outlook.
"If you look at John Roberts' personal life you will see he is very grounded, he is a family man. He loves his kids more than life itself and he's not going to be spending time on the Georgetown cocktail circuit and in Geneva having foreign governments tell him how he should decide U.S. law," Coffin said.
Roberts' parents and two of his sisters made themselves available to the media in suburban Maryland on Thursday, an effort to humanize Roberts, who played high school football and was a card-carrying union member when he worked with his father at a steel mill in his native state of Indiana.
The White House also doesn't mind the image of Roberts' son Jack acting up Tuesday night as the president announced the nomination. The administration is counting on the belief that any parent can relate to being embarrassed by their kids' antics.
While the latest AP poll indicates that 59 percent of Americans have not heard enough about Roberts to form an opinion, when asked if Roberts should be confirmed the answer was 47 percent yes to 24 percent no. Fifty-two percent said they believe Roberts should explain his abortion views while 41 percent said it's unnecessary.
Roberts and his wife are both practicing Catholics. Abortion-rights groups note that Roberts' wife is a past board member of an anti-abortion group known as Feminists For Life (search). Roberts has not publicly explained his personal views but insists they won't affect how he might rule from the bench.
The image battle is only two days old, but already the White House says it is pleased with the growing number of Democratic senators who have said kind things about Roberts and the fact that others have withheld criticism so far.
When the confirmation hearings begin, another fight looms over documents. Democrats want to take a look at a number of memos and documents that Roberts wrote while deputy solicitor general representing the first Bush administration. But those documents are protected by attorney-client privilege, so there is no obligation and little inclination to give them up.