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Networks image Opposites attracted to nominee battle WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times) -- Lock and load!

That's been the instant response among political activists here as President-elect George W. Bush has assembled his Cabinet-in-waiting. The hot-button selections among his choices have sent a shot of adrenaline through the capital's battling class--with interest groups, politicians and congressional staff scrambling to the barricades to fight or defend the Bush team. Faxes are humming, Web sites are screaming, midnight oil is burning by the gallon.

Washington, in short, is in combat mode.

With the withdrawal of Linda Chavez from contention as Labor secretary, the clash has narrowed--at least for now--to Bush's selection of John Ashcroft to be attorney general and Gail A. Norton to be Interior secretary.

The extraordinary mobilization of forces for and against these two nominees has served to spotlight the interest groups that are part of the warp and woof of Washington. Normally focused on their own particular issues, these organizations now have aligned themselves on a common front.

The brewing battles also are engaging an unusually wide range of combatants: Many of the groups jumping in the fray never before have fought a nomination battle.

Some argue that, win or lose, such confrontations benefit groups on both sides by heightening their profiles, attracting members and fueling fund-raising efforts.

But the fights over Ashcroft and Norton have taken on an especially intense partisan cast because they are, for many, an emotional postscript to the bitter presidential election. As a result, the anticipated rhetorical broadsides may undercut any chance for a post-inaugural cease-fire at a time when a narrowly split Congress may need it more than ever.

"You have this dry, parched field, and any spark can set it off," said Marshall Wittmann, a conservative analyst at the Hudson Institute. "Any hope for a honeymoon for Bush is now dead."

Opposition to Norton's nomination already has been announced by the AFL-CIO but is expected to come mostly from environmental groups. Just how broad that effort will be may become clear after a meeting today of the heads of 30 major environmental organizations known as the Green Group.

The most pitched battle almost assuredly will be over Ashcroft, the former senator from Missouri who is poised to take over a department that can have a significant effect on virtually every domestic political issue. With his staunchly conservative voting record and his strong opposition to abortion rights, Ashcroft has emerged as the darling of the right and the bete noire of the left.

The groups already marshaling for combat are far from fringe elements. In many cases, they are pillars of the Democratic and Republican parties. Lining up to oppose Ashcroft are advocates of organized labor, civil rights, abortion rights, gun control and environmental protection. The pro-Ashcroft corner includes advocates of abortion limits, traditional family values, tax cuts and property rights.

The call to arms was sounded at a time when both sides of the country's partisan divide had barely recovered from the grueling 2000 presidential election.

"We all would have liked to have a little rest after the election, but rest is not in the picture," said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Opposition researchers at People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, worked round the clock through Christmas week. The anti-Ashcroft groups quickly assembled into one large coalition and staged a news conference Tuesday, in essence to declare war on him.

Indeed, participants minced no words about the vigor with which they will try to thwart Ashcroft's confirmation.

"We will fight this nomination tooth and nail," said Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington bureau of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. "We have taken the position of: By all means necessary."

To that end, the coalition hopes to deploy all the tools of modern political activism. People for the American Way is putting out a multi-part report on Ashcroft's record. Gun control advocates who organized the Million Mom March constructed a Web site to promote opposition to him. The National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund is drafting pointed questions for Ashcroft and feeding them to friendly senators for use at his confirmation hearing.

In private, activists are clearly enjoying the thrill of the chase.

"This is what we do best!" said one advocate for women's rights.

Conservatives are mounting their own pro-Ashcroft effort, although it is not as centrally coordinated as the opposition. "We don't have a politburo," said Notra Trulock, spokesman for a coalition of more than 100 conservative groups sponsored by the Free Congress Foundation.

Another group, Americans for the Bush Cabinet, was announced by the American Conservative Union to defend all of the president-elect's nominees.

"Conservatives will no longer stand by and let good men and women be wrongly defamed and maligned in this manner," said David A. Keene, chairman of the union.

Americans for Tax Reform has used its Web site to carry information, articles and talking points on Bush nominees, with daily updates.

Some of Ashcroft's allies say they do not need to lobby as feverishly as his foes.

"On the right, we simply have to knock down the lies; we don't have to shout," said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform.

But other Republicans argue that conservatives have been much too tepid in their support for Bush and his nominees, yielding the field to liberal critics.

"Let's show the left that conservatives are not going to run from this fight, that we will stand by our friends and allies," Richard A. Viguerie, a leading conservative activist, said in an "open letter to American conservatives."


Thursday, January 11, 2001



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