Robert Novak

All such senators may be willing to risk a politically unpopular "no" vote, partly thanks to disappointing Senate Republican candidate recruitment this year. With party leaders unable to convince popular Republican Gov. John Hoeven to run in North Dakota, Conrad does not yet even have an opponent. Florida Republican leaders did not get the candidate they wanted with Rep. Katherine Harris running far behind, enabling Bill Nelson to surprise many colleagues by announcing opposition to Alito. However, conservative money now will pour into both Florida and North Dakota.

Politicizing the confirmation vote also poses problems for prominent Democratic non-incumbent candidates. Pennsylvania State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., the nominally pro-life opponent of Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, is keeping quiet about Alito. He will be bombarded on this point in weeks to come. In New Jersey, newly appointed Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez does not have Casey's luxury of neutrality on Alito. He is expected to vote no, threatening Italo-American votes against him this year in favor of Republican Thomas Kean (son of the former governor).

Alito strategists were delighted this week when "Friends of John Kerry" dispatched over the whole country an e-mail signed by the 2004 presidential nominee. That facilitates the conservative tactic of linking Conrad with Kennedy and Kerry in the minds of North Dakotans if he votes against Alito.

"We can't trust [Alito] to defend mainstream American values," contended Kerry's letter. The contention that President Bush's nominee is outside the "mainstream" is the major talking point against Alito, but polls show support for him and his endorsement of spousal abortion notification. That debate's outcome may determine whether senators who vote against Alito will suffer at the polls this year and in the years ahead.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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