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Supreme Court vacancy fight goes online

Liberal and conservative groups launch rival Web sites to rally supporters over who will be the next justice.

Grassroots political groups concerned about the next U.S. Supreme Court vacancy are mounting aggressive "cybercampaigns" they couldn't have imagined more than a decade ago, when the last seat was up for grabs.

In addition to the blogosphere buzzing, both the conservative Progress for America and the liberal People for the American Way groups in recent months have created special Web sites aimed at influencing the nomination and confirmation process. Each site hosts information about the organizations' pet issues, a healthy dose of quotes from detractors, and rival advertisements.

Early on, the groups' Internet campaigning surrounded the debate over filibustering judicial candidates in Congress. But they beefed up their online efforts after Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's announcement of her retirement--which supplied the first vacancy since 1994 when President Clinton appointed Justice Stephen Breyer.

Progress for America's UporDownVote.com centers on a Web-only Flash ad called "Ben & George," said by a press release to have targeted 8.7 million Americans through a "viral marketing campaign" launched on July 1.

The 30-second spot, made to resemble a TV news broadcast, satirizes liberal reaction to court seats for Ben Franklin or George Washington. "Democrats immediately attacked Washington for his environmental record," says the anchorman, pausing for emphasis before adding: "of chopping down cherry trees."

The first president also shows up in People for the American Way's SaveTheCourt.org in a QuickTime ad that it hopes to air on television. "Our founding fathers gave justices lifetime appointments to free them from partisan politics," the 30-second video's narrator says. "Choose wisely, Mr. President. The eyes of history are upon you."

Progress for America says it plans to spend at least $18 million on campaigns to defend the president's Supreme Court picks and combat "instant attacks" on nominees from the liberal side. People for the American Way, which spent $5 million on its pro-filibuster campaign, is urging people to donate $10 and then to tell 10 friends, chain-letter style, to do the same.

The organization also set up a text-messaging network that would dispatch announcements about nominees to its subscribers, who would be encouraged to dial up senators, the media and other designated organizations in their area. So far, about 7,000 people have signed up, said Josh Hilgart, who runs People for the American Way's Internet programs.

Hilgart said the organization was poised to launch SaveTheCourt.org the minute a Supreme Court vacancy opened up, and it plans to make updates as the nomination process moves forward. "If Bush does consult (with the Senate), which he is suggesting he might, and we end up with a candidate that's a consensus nominee, then it may turn out it's quite a low-key online episode," Hilgart said. "It really remains to be seen."