Bush team strategizes on Ashcroft nomination
AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Even before Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, announced her intention to oppose Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft Wednesday night, Bush transition officials were preparing to criticize any Senate Democrat who opposes Ashcroft before confirmation hearings are convened.
"This leads me to the conclusion that some senators do not want to give Senator Ashcroft a full and fair hearing which is part of the advise and consent process," said a senior Bush transition official assigned to Ashcroft's confirmation. "It appears some senators will not take the time to judge his record or demeanor before deciding."
The Bush official added that no one in the Ashcroft camp expected to win Boxer's vote.
The first order of business, the official said, is making absolutely sure no Republicans defect. The only senator the Bush team is not sure of is Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, among the party's most outspoken proponents of abortion rights. Ashcroft strongly opposes abortion rights.
Ashcroft will see Specter on Friday, the official said.
The Bush team has already nailed down the support of Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, moderate Republicans who also strongly support abortion rights. The Collins nod was viewed as especially important since she is running for re-election in 2002, and the Bush team wanted to make sure political sensitivities about Ashcroft did not inhibit Collins from making an early endorsement.
Beyond Republicans, the official said as many as 20 Democrats are believed to be future Ashcroft supporters. They are encouraged by support received so far from Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.
The Bush official said Ashcroft will emphatically declare his intention to enforce all laws dealing with abortion rights, civil rights and gay rights. They believe these assurances will deflect criticism Ashcroft has encountered for his voting record that is often at odds with some of these laws.
"It's going to be a very hard road," the official said. "Next week is going to be a very long week."
The official said he could not be sure what effect Linda Chavez's withdrawal as labor secretary nominee will have on Democratic opposition. The general sense among other Bush officials is that Ashcroft would always draw the most Democratic ire and that will not change.
Bush officials are hoping for three days of confirmation hearings beginning Tuesday. Following that, they have been advised, the Senate Judiciary Committee record will be left open for a full week to obtain answers to written questions for Ashcroft submitted by committee members.
The official also expects a lengthy Senate floor debate on Ashcroft and does not anticipate a full confirmation vote until the first week of February.
He said transition officials have lined up numerous law enforcement groups and social conservative groups to work the trenches on Ashcroft's behalf.
One flash point so far has been Ashcroft's opposition to the elevation of Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White to the federal bench. The Ashcroft team has lined up law enforcement groups and crime victims ready to testify against White because of his Supreme Court opinions they contend sought to undo death penalty convictions in several notorious murder cases.
Senior Republican Senate aides and Bush officials say they are prepared to turn at least part of the Ashcroft hearing into a "nationally televised" law and order debate if Democrats push too hard on the Ronnie White case.
"That's a road they might not want to go down," the official said.
Still, those on the Ashcroft team will devote several days to preparing for a Judiciary Committee grilling. Those sessions will intensify over the coming weekend, following Ashcroft's Senate courtesy calls.