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Ad war erupts over Bush court nominees

Sides set to spend about $1m each

WASHINGTON -- A costly advertising war erupted yesterday over President Bush's controversial court nominees, with opposing groups vowing to spend at least $1 million each over the next two weeks.

Responding swiftly to advertising from a group that supports Bush's nominees, People for The American Way said it would launch counter commercials.

''We do not intend to let their ads go unanswered," said Ralph Neas. ''We're working with the masters of deception and distraction that brought us the Swift Boat smears," he added, a reference to last year's campaign attacks on Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

Neas spoke less than an hour after Progress for America, which has strong Republican ties, unveiled a commercial designed to pressure wavering Republicans and help assure quick approval for Bush's judicial nominees.

Over the next two weeks, Progress For America intends to spend $350,000 on ''radio ads on Christian stations" and $1.5 million on television ads in six targeted states as well as nationally, according to one internal estimate.

''Senate Democrats have abused the rules and refused to even allow a vote," says the television ad. ''So courtrooms sit empty, while thousands of Americans have their cases delayed."

The ad says it's the job of a senator to vote, adding: ''Urge your senators to vote, up or down."

Neas, whose group has strong Democratic ties, said it would air its commercial in the same media markets. He said the group would spend more than $1 million over two weeks on television, radio, and newspaper advertisements.

The ad criticizes the two nominees that Progress for America defended in its own commercial, Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown.

''Too much power's a dangerous thing," it says, referring to Rebublican threats to ban judicial filibusters.

Questioned about his attempt to connect the current ad campaign with the attacks on Kerry, Neas cited the presence of Ben Ginsberg at a Progress for America news conference earlier in the day. Ginsberg, a lawyer, advised Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth, an organization that accused Kerry of inflating his Vietnam War record.

''The People for the American Way are as skewed and misguided about this attack on Progress for America as they are about the Constitution," countered Stuart Roy, a consultant to PFA. ''Judges deserve an up or down vote and Ralph deserves to say whatever he wants no matter how wrong or obtuse his screed may be."

The dueling ad campaigns dramatize the importance the two parties and their allies attach to a struggle that directly affects the fate of seven appeals court nominees -- and has implications for any Supreme Court vacancy that occurs during Bush's term.

Democrats blocked 10 of Bush's first-term appeals court nominees by filibuster, a parliamentary tactic that requires supporters to post 60 votes to advance to a final vote.

The president renominated seven of the 10 after he was reelected. Democrats give every indication they are prepared to block some or all of them again on grounds they are too conservative to warrant lifetime appointments to the bench.

Republicans have responded by threatening to use their majority to ban judicial filibusters. The GOP has 55 of the 100 Senate seats, but two members of the rank and file have announced plans to side with the Democrats and enough others are publicly uncommitted to leave the outcome of any showdown in doubt.

At the same time, recent internal Republican polling found only minority support for the GOP plan to abolish judicial filibusters, which much of the public views as political in nature. At the same time, a heavy majority in the same poll favored guaranteeing all nominees a yes-or-no vote.

Against that backdrop, Progress For America intends to advertise in six states this week and on cable television nationally the following week.

The states are Alaska, Arkansas, Maine, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Rhode Island -- home to many of the Republicans least enamored of their party's position on judicial confirmation.

GOP Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island has announced plans to vote with the Democrats while Republican senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine are publicly undecided. Republicans have also expressed concern about the willingness of Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to follow the party leadership on the issue.

Arkansas and North Dakota each have two Democratic senators, and all are expected to support their party's leadership. Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota faces reelection in 2006, and Republicans have said they intend to target him for defeat.

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