Ad War at Full Blast as Alito Hearings Begin ; Interest Groups Target Specific States and Take to the Internet to Make Their Case for or against Confirmation

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Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito faces his first questions from senators on the Judiciary Committee Tuesday, slightly ahead of where he was when President Bush nominated him on Oct. 31.

In contrast to previous judicial nominees, Judge Alito's approval ratings have improved ahead of his confirmation hearings, from 49 percent to 54 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted last month.

Now that both sides have mastered the art of the Bork, Alito's standing reflects, in part, how effectively interest groups have neutralized each other's arguments.

"Borking" drifted into the English language - or at least into discussions on court nominations - after opponents of Reagan nominee Robert Bork moved quickly to define him to the public even before the first question was asked in his 1987 hearings. Neither President Reagan nor movement conservatives mounted a defense. After explosive Senate hearings, the nomination failed.

Conservatives vowed it would never happen again.

With the swing seat on the Supreme Court on the line, both sides have been raising funds and targeting political campaigns in anticipation of this fight for years. In the runup to this week's hearings, both sides picked up the pace on targeted ad campaigns to the same key states, op-eds, blogs, podcasts, conference calls, hundred-plus page opposition reports, and more reports countering those reports.

"Since Bork, it's been a learning experience for everyone," says Manuel Miranda, chairman of the Third Branch Conference, a coalition of conservative and libertarian groups. "Liberal groups simply haven't had traction from what they previously did."

Anti-Alito groups say that the public is just beginning to focus on what's at stake with this confirmation. "Regardless of the polls, it's the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings that are always the critical phase," says Ralph Neas, president of People For the American Way, which opposes Alito's confirmation. …