Alito in Cruise Control?

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U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito listens to questions from Sen. Dick Durbin during the third day of his Senate confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.

Judge Samuel Alito may be in the hot seat on the Hill this morning, but so are the Democrats who have done little to sway centrists away from the conservative judge. Although Alito didn't exactly overwhelm the Senators yesterday with his well-argued but stiff answers, the Democrats barely laid a glove on him. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the committee, scored few points in his cross-examination, doing less to undercut Alito on judicial issues than he did to underscore the Republican story line of the judge as a melting-pot dream come true: a hardworking immigrant's successful son. Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy got little to no traction on Alito's views on executive power. And Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware seemed to wave the white flag from the start, praising the judge for his "integrity."

One Democratic staffer groaned at the mention of Biden's long-winded performance yesterday and called such grandstanding "not helpful." But there appears to be little organized Democratic strategy to turn the momentum of the hearings around. Alito can expect more attacks today on his membership in a right-wing Princeton alumni group as well as further inquiry into his position on abortion. But Democrats appear resigned to the judge's non-specific responses on that issue. Aides said Democrats would continue trying to impress upon Senators, and the public in general, the importance of the seat Alito would take on the court—that of swing vote Sandra Day O'Connor—a line of argument that got Democrats nowhere yesterday.

With most Senators still out of Washington on the winter recess, it is proving difficult for Republican and Democratic vote-counters to learn whether the first two days of hearings have had much effect on the centrists who hold Alito's fate in their hands. Before the recess, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and the two Arkansas Senators, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, were considered possible Democratic votes for his confirmation. But one thing is clear: Democrats so far have not laid the groundwork that would support a filibuster. Which means the only person who can doom Alito's nomination in the coming hours of testimony may be the judge himself. With his cautious, controlled answers, a devastating gaffe seems unlikely.