The Selling Of Clarence Thomas

William H. Rehnquist had them. So did Henry Kissinger. Robert Bork had them, though it didn't do any good. And now that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas is about to undergo trial by fire in the Senate, he too is following a great Washington tradition: putting his fate in the hands of skilled lobbyists who will try to disarm his toughest opposition.

They're called "minesweepers," and the White House has two of the savviest handling Thomas. As the 43-year-old federal appeals court judge makes the rounds on Capitol Hill, he's being guided by superlobbyists Kenneth M. Duberstein and Tom C. Korologos, Republican veterans who managed the confirmation of Justice David H. Souter last year.

The style of the two couldn't be more different. Korologos is a feisty alumnus of the Nixon White House. A principal in Timmons & Co., a top corporate lobbying outfit, he is well versed in Senate politics. The less combative Duberstein, a former Chief of Staff for President Reagan, is well connected with GOP moderates.

MURDER TRIAL. While Korologos prowls the Hill collecting votes, Duberstein will try to choreograph the confirmation. In carefully controlled public appearances, Thomas will be told to stress his hardscrabble upbringing in the segregated South. He'll play down his opposition to affirmative action and will express gratitude to the civil rights movement for making his success possible.

Thomas faces a grueling summer preparing for his September confirmation hearings. Senators revel in the challenge of goading a candidate into mistakes. Thomas' coaches plan a mock hearing, known as a "murder board," in which they hit the nominee as hard as they can. "We pretend we're senators and ask the most foul and rotten things," says Korologos.

All the coaching in the world won't make Thomas' confirmation a romp. Although he has yet to state a position on abortion, suspicious feminists have already declared their opposition. Because the question of a constitutional guarantee of abortion rights will soon come before the Supreme Court, Thomas may be able to evade the issue. But he'll have to be more forthright on whether a constitutional right to privacy exists--the basis for the high court's 1973 abortion decision.

The nominee's other challenge is to prevent civil rights groups, which are disturbed by his opposition to racial preferences, from uniting against him. The strategy is to keep the NAACP, the most important group, out of the fight. President Bush is personally lobbying NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks and won a crucial round on July 8, when the NAACP deferred taking a position. "If the civil rights lobby does a job on Thomas, that could destroy him," says a Thomas adviser.

Even great coaching won't work if a candidate can't take advice. Bork's script called for him to convince the Senate that he was a genial moderate, but he wouldn't go along. The Administration expects no such free-lancing from Thomas, who survived difficult confirmations to become chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a judge. "Clarence is a very smart guy," says a senior Administration official. "He's been through this before."

Still, nothing can really prepare someone for the intense scrutiny a Supreme Court nominee gets. That's why the judge will be grateful to have Duberstein and Korologos by his side. And what's in it for the handlers? National recognition, the gratitude of the President--and moving to the top of the Rolodex the next time a harried CEO wants to hire someone to get his company out of a jam in Washington.

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