Ashcroft Opponents Stall for Time and Hope for the Worst

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Judiciary Committee co-chairmen Orrin Hatch (l) and Patrick Leahy confer

Will John Ashcroft be confirmed as U.S. attorney general?

Almost certainly.

But over the next week or so, before the Senate Judiciary Committee actually votes on the nomination, Ashcroft's Democratic opponents hope to riddle the candidate with as many ideological bullets as possible, and perhaps convince their peers to back an Edward Kennedy–sponsored filibuster. Sure, a filibuster probably wouldn't work — and is frowned upon anyway by minority leader Tom Daschle — but any delay at all provides Ashcroft's adversaries with time to build up their arsenal, which, while probably incapable of bringing down Ashcroft's nomination, could serve another, longer-term purpose: By lodging deeply in vulnerable congressional Republicans, the Dems' ammunition may poison GOP reelection efforts — and even shift the balance of power on Capitol Hill.

Late Wednesday, new allegations emerged that may help in that campaign.

The latest accusations against Ashcroft are hurtful, according to congressional observers, but hardly career-ending. According to Paul Offner, who applied to a Missouri Cabinet post back in 1985, then-governor Ashcroft began their interview by asking him if he was gay. Offner, who, by the way, is now married, he was "stunned" by the question.

Ashcroft insists that he "cannot imagine starting a meeting with this question," and various aides involved in hiring say they never heard Ashcroft broach the topic of sexual orientation during job interviews. Not that it would have mattered legally at the time — such an inquiry is not against the law in Missouri, which does not prohibit hiring discrimination on the basis on sexual orientation.

Ashcroft has said during his confirmation hearings that if confirmed as attorney general he would "not make sexual orientation a matter to be considered in hiring or firing," but many of his opponents have strongly questioned that commitment. Among the most notable skeptics is James Hormel, the openly gay former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, whose 1997 nomination was stymied by resistance led by Ashcroft — resistance Democrats maintain was related to Hormel's sexuality. After weeks of silence, Hormel now actively opposes Ashcroft's nomination, saying, "I am extremely disturbed that he was nominated for this very sensitive post, and it concerns me greatly that he might be serving as attorney general, given his stated positions on a variety of issues."

According to TIME congressional correspondent Douglas Waller, any new anti-Ashcroft developments are like pennies from heaven for congressional Democrats, most of whom harbor no illusions about actually defeating the nomination. They just want more time to broadcast their opposition, which they hope will compromise the reputation of Ashcroft's supporters. "Ashcroft's opponents [mostly liberal Democrats] are delighted by the delay," says Waller, "which has given grassroots activists more time to work," and spread the negative spin on the nominee.

Even if the campaign to discredit Ashcroft cannot derail his candidacy, many Democrats hope they can build enough negative energy behind the former senator to raise questions about those who vote in favor of confirmation. That tactic may prove particularly useful, of course, during the next election cycle, when some moderate Senate Republicans will return to their liberal-leaning states and be forced to defend their vote in favor of an attorney general so violently opposed by powerful local interests like organized labor and the civil rights lobby.