WASHINGTON – A low-budget ad skirmish popped up over Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court on Thursday, liberal groups depicting him as an agent of the right wing and conservatives claiming his critics "want to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance."
Three separate groups unleashed commercials while Alito's continuing round of senatorial courtesy calls produced some of the most pointed Democratic reaction to date. "Frankly, I remain very concerned about whether he understands the importance of an equal America," said Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar.
"It seemed to me he wants to move the country back to the pre-Warren Court days," said the only Hispanic senator, referring to a judicial era that brought an end to public school segregation and established the election principle of one-man one-vote.
President Bush nominated Alito to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who often casts the decisive vote on contentious issues such as abortion and affirmative action. As a result, the appointment has galvanized activists on both ends of the political spectrum in a way that even John Roberts' appointment as chief justice earlier this year did not.
The commercials that were unveiled during the day reflected the stakes involved, and officials on both sides of the nomination said the ads probably would prove to be only the beginning of the effort aimed at senators whose votes could prove critical to Alito's confirmation. Senate hearings begin Jan. 9.
A coalition of groups opposed to Alito's confirmation said its ad will run initially in Rhode Island and Maine, two states that have three moderate Republicans senators between them.
"The right wing has taken over the West Wing," the ad says, showing a photo of the White House, and Bush "gave extremists a veto over the Supreme Court."
It says that as a judge, Alito has "ruled to make it easier for corporations to discriminate ... even voted to approve strip search of a 10-year-old girl." Referring to a letter Alito wrote two decades ago while seeking a job in the Reagan administration, it quotes him as writing that "the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion."
The groups backing the ad include the Alliance for Justice, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, People for the American Way and abortion rights organizations. Officials said the ad would run on cable television news programs nationally as well as in Maine and Rhode Island.
They declined to say how much would be spent, but officials at rival organizations placed the expenditure at less than $65,000, an amount unlikely to make a significant impact. If true, that suggested the commercial was designed largely to generate publicity and raise money for a wider campaign.
Progress For America, an organization that has supported each of Bush's three Supreme court nominees to date, announced it was responding with a commercial of its own. It features a series of testimonials from four recent law clerks -- two women and two men.
"He doesn't have a political agenda," said Michael Park.
"When I worked for him he applied the law fairly," added Jack White.
The group said it had spent $150,000 to run the commercial on cable stations in Maine and Arkansas -- the Southern state has two Democratic senators -- as well as nationally.
The Committee for Justice backed the third ad unveiled during the day.
Referring to Alito's critics, it said, "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, and even oppose pornography filters on public library computers."
Sean Rushton, a spokesman, said the commercial will run during Thanksgiving week in several states that voted for Bush and have Democratic senators. The list includes Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia, Montana, Arkansas and Colorado.
Salazar, speaking to reporters after his meeting with Alito, said the veteran appeals court judge "is no Sandra Day O'Connor. He is, I think, significantly to the right of Sandra Day O'Connor."
The Colorado Democrat said he intends to review cases that Alito had brought to his attention in an attempt to reassure him about his judicial philosophy.