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Congress plays political football with Alito

Washington has been a lot tougher on Judge Samuel Alito than it was on Judge John Roberts, the last nominee to confront the politics of the Supreme Court. NBC's David Gregory reports.

Washington has been a lot tougher on Judge Samuel Alito than it was on Judge John Roberts last fall, when he confronted Democrats during his confirmation hearing.

At Roberts' hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the nominee, “You're certainly brilliant, talented and well-qualified,” while Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told him, “You are, without question, an impressive, accomplished and brilliant lawyer.”

Alito is bearing the brunt of a quickly changed political climate — dominated by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and debate over President Bush's controversial order to spy on Americans.

“Sam Alito is going to have to carry the alleged sins of the Republican Party and the administration in these hearings,” says conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan. “Because the Democrats are going to put him on trial in place of George Bush.”

After conservatives derailed the nomination of Harriet Miers, many Democrats saw the conservative Alito as a gift to the president's political base, making the air war over Alito particularly fierce.

TV ads proclaimed, “Samuel Alito is no moderate. But he plays one on TV,” and “Everyday, desperate liberals make up a steady drip of attacks against Judge Samuel Alito.”

Key Democrats have even threatened a filibuster, but no one in the White House expects that. They say the vote may be close on Alito, but his confirmation is not in doubt.

Some observers agree, saying Democrats lack a smoking gun.

“They need to portray the nominee as too extreme or not having the temperament or judgment needed,” says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. “So far the Democrats have some ammunition to use against Judge Alito, but not enough.”

As for the president,NBC News legal analyst Jonathan Turley says, “Sam Alito may be the most lasting legacy of George Bush. He will supply the fifth vote that could change the landscape of American law.”

The high stakes of this fight have made it a must-win.