Forward Into Battle

John Ashcroft knew how to bring the crowd to its feet. He finished his speech to the 1998 South Carolina Republican Party Convention by holding up two pictures of his grandson: one a sonogram of a fetus, the other a photo of the newborn infant. "If the Supreme Court had seen these pictures, had known about this 25 years ago, would they have said it was OK to destroy this grandson of mine?" he said, as the audience roared. "I say, 'No.' I say Americans must protect unborn children in the law." Ashcroft, with the help of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, won the convention's presidential straw poll, beating George W. Bush by a 2-to-1 margin. And though his White House aspirations dissolved for lack of funds, Ashcroft's stature in the party's right wing only grew. Bush, under pressure from conservatives to deliver a major cabinet appointment, has delighted them by nominating Ashcroft, 58, to be his attorney general.

There may be other confirmation battles to come--environmentalists, for instance, will put heat on Gale Norton for Interior--but the fight over the attorney general's job will engage a broader range of forces, from civil-rights activists to the pro-choice lobby. While the odds favor Ashcroft's survival, for now at least, some Republicans are nervous. Ashcroft arrives at a moment of pent-up resentment and hunger for payback on the left. Some activists want to avenge the GOP's treatment of Clinton-era nominees; others are simply angry about the disputed 2000 election. "The suspicions engendered by Florida are very much a part of the environment," says People for the American Way president Ralph Neas, who led the 1987 fight against Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and who is mounting a similar challenge to Ashcroft. At a minimum, pro-choice advocates seek to rough him up as a signal to Bush that there will be even stiffer opposition if he tries to name an anti-abortion jurist to the Supreme Court. Confirmation hearings will be used to send a specific message: "Justices opposed to Roe v. Wade need not apply," says Kate Michelman of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Ashcroft's resume is hardly that of a bomb-thrower. The Yale-educated son of an Assembly of God minister, he won statewide office in Missouri five times, serving as attorney general, governor and senator before losing his seat last November to the late governor Mel Carnahan, killed in a plane crash before Election Day (his widow was appointed to replace him).

But he has always been a man of deeply held--and deeply conservative--convictions. He opposes gun control and affirmative action; he's long supported term limits, prayer in schools and direct funding of churches to run social-service programs. "I need to invite God's presence into whatever I'm doing, including the world of politics," he wrote in a 1998 memoir. Ashcroft tacked even farther to the right when he tested the waters for a 2000 presidential run that same year. His exploratory campaign brought him close to the most ardently conservative elements of the GOP, including Robertson and philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife. While he was serving as a Senate juror in Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, Ashcroft's political-action committee shared its fund-raising lists with the legal-defense funds of Linda Tripp and Paula Jones, triggering accusations of conflict of interest.

He also pushed a series of constitutional amendments, including an anti-abortion measure that reached well beyond the agenda of most pro-life groups: eliminating exceptions for rape and incest. Moreover, by defining life as beginning at fertilization, it effectively barred forms of contraception like IUDs and birth-control pills. "That was a major victory for us," said Judy Brown, president of the militant American Life League, whose members picket abortion clinics. Last year the group gave him a Courage and Integrity Award, an honor previously bestowed on Pat Buchanan and Sen. Jesse Helms. Ashcroft isn't talking publicly, but Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker says that as attorney general he will "uphold the laws" guaranteeing safe access to abortion clinics. And behind the scenes, Ashcroft has been reaching out to pro-choice colleagues to deliver the same assurances.

Civil-rights groups intend to attack Ashcroft for his treatment of black Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White. Nominated to the federal bench by Clinton in 1997, White was excoriated by Ashcroft on the Senate floor as "pro-criminal" and the "most anti-death-penalty judge" on the state's high court. He cited White's lone dissent in the death-penalty appeal of a Vietnam veteran who claimed he was in a posttraumatic flashback when he shot and killed three police officers and a sheriff's wife. (White believed the man's counsel had been derelict in not properly raising insanity claims during the trial.) Records showed that White affirmed 41 of 59 death sentences that came before him, but Ashcroft rallied Republicans to reject him on a 55-45 party-line vote. The episode cost him critical support among African-Americans in last year's re-election campaign. One longtime black fund-raiser, St. Louis businessman Gentry Trotter, quit Ashcroft's finance committee in protest, denouncing the senator's attack as "an ugly and glaring wart" on his "once distinguished public-service record."

But the collegial culture of the Senate gives Ashcroft a considerable advantage. Liberals praise him for his personal decency and willingness to listen. "I've found him exceptionally easy to work with," says Sen. Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. "I intend to vote for him." Still, the early months of new administrations are littered with confirmation disasters (Zoe Baird, John Tower). "You've got to find a target and go out and trash him," said Bush strategist Karl Rove (who worked for years as a consultant to Ashcroft), fretting about the search-and-destroy nature of modern confirmation politics. Rove thinks Ashcroft will "do fine," but not before--at the very least--a good deal of sound and fury.