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The battle over judicial nominee Miguel Estrada has entered the television age. The confrontation is no longer just a political showdown between liberal and conservative interest groups and senators. It has also become a classic PR duel, with glossy television advertisements produced by partisan Washington, D.C., media companies at an overall cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Observers agree that this is the first time that television has been deployed in a battle over a nomination to a lower federal court. Although the ads are not currently on the air, the fight over Estrada is now certain to continue for weeks in the wake of Senate Republicans’ failed effort to end a filibuster March 6. Both sides say they could easily renew their media blitz. The advertising purchases are small by the standards of most corporate or political campaigns. But the very fact that advocates on both sides are using television, along with radio and newspaper advertisements, shows that Republicans and Democrats see serious political consequences over Estrada’s pending nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Mike Mihalke, a GOP public affairs consultant with the D.C.-based Alexander Strategy Group, says, “This is just warm-up calisthenics for a fight down the road for a Supreme Court nomination. This will prove to be quite small in comparison with what we will probably see soon.” The pro-Estrada commercial was paid for by the Committee for Justice, a group founded last year by Republican lawyer C. Boyden Gray of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. It was produced by Policy Impact Strategic Communications, a D.C. media shop affiliated with Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, a lobbying outfit led by former Republican National Committee Chair Haley Barbour. Its anti-Estrada counterpart was funded by a coalition of 35 environmental and civil rights organizations. It was created by the Glover Park Group, a consulting firm founded in 2001 by former Bill Clinton Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, former Al Gore aide Carter Eskew, and other Democratic operatives. The two sides used different strategies in designing and placing their ads. The Republicans went for CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and Fox News � all in prime time and in carefully selected states around the country, including Louisiana, Nevada, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, and North Carolina. “We’ve targeted it to the states of senators whom we want to get to vote for cloture,” says Gray. Entitled “Land of Opportunity,” the pro-Estrada ad shows a young Hispanic man looking for a job as a delivery clerk. When the store owner sees him, he takes down his “Help Wanted” sign, and the job applicant walks away disappointed. “Call your senators. Tell them it’s time for intolerance to end. Anything less is offensive, unfair, and not the American way,” the voice-over concludes. William Nixon, the Policy Impact principal who oversaw the making of the commercial, says the ad “elicited a visceral reaction” among many viewers. “It’s saying that the fact that Democrats are stonewalling Estrada should be anathema to all Americans,” Nixon explains. Nixon says it took a 12-person media team just 48 hours to produce the ad from start to finish. The ad ran in both English and Spanish versions. While declining to specify the exact cost of the ad, Nixon says that commercials of that type ordinarily run between $25,000 and $50,000 in production costs and that local media purchases such as the one made for the ad cost between $50,000 and $100,000. Gray declines to discuss the ad’s costs. Nixon also produced a commercial that ran in last year’s Texas senatorial race that portrayed Democratic candidate Ronald Kirk as a pawn in the hands of “the liberal gang” who induced him to oppose 5th Circuit nominee Priscilla Owen of Texas in exchange for campaign money. Kirk lost the hotly contested election to Republican John Cornyn. Nixon says his Estrada advertisement, which ran for about two weeks last month, forced the Democrats to counter by producing their own TV commercial. A spokesperson for the Alliance for Justice, denies this and says the alliance’s commercial was already being planned when the pro-Estrada ad came out. In contrast to the Policy Impact ad, the anti-Estrada activists aired the Glover Park Group’s effort on CNN and Fox News in the D.C. area only. “Our purpose was to demonstrate the breadth and scope of our coalition and to counter the misinformation being spread by pro-Estrada forces,” says Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice. “If it had been needed, we would have shown the ad in other places as well.” The ad, entitled “Highest Law,” keeps the focus more directly on Estrada, the 41-year-old Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner whose nomination has been pending for nearly two years. Senate Democrats criticize Estrada as a “stealth nominee” who has refused to discuss his views on key issues. “Now a nominee to our second highest court is stonewalling the Senate and the public,” the voice-over in the commercial says. The advertisement shows an African-American man, a Hispanic worker, and a white woman, followed by two children wading in a stream. It asks, “Where does he stand on civil rights, worker protections, reproductive choice, the environment? He won’t say.” The ad aired starting Feb. 24 and ran for a week. Principals of the Glover Park Group did not return calls, and Aron declines comment on the cost of the ad. But an expert media buyer in the D.C. area, who declined to be identified, estimates the production costs of the ad at about $25,000 and the air time at about $35,000. The pro- and anti-Estrada groups did not raise funds specifically for the ads. Their costs came out of the groups’ general coffers. Many observers wonder whether high-powered media campaigns are well-suited to judicial nomination battles, but they are clearly protected by the First Amendment, and they will probably be used as long as one side or the other sees some political advantage. Barbara Reed, director of the courts initiative at the bipartisan, D.C.-based Constitution Project, says the immediate effect of television “may be on the negative side, since it will only place more of a focus on the animosity between the two factions.” But in the long run, Reed says, “we may find that this is a good thing.” “I don’t think the general public has been privy to the debate on judicial nominations,” she says. “To the extent that [television] can educate the public on how judges are selected and what criteria the Senate uses to evaluate them, it can engage the public and give them more of a role in the process.”

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