WILMINGTON, Del. — When the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Judge Robert H. Bork's Supreme Court nomination open Tuesday, one participant will have nearly as much at stake as Bork.
He is Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., chairman of the committee, Bork's archadversary and, not incidentally, a struggling seeker of the Democratic presidential nomination. Depending on how Biden handles Bork and, more important, himself, his White House candidacy could soar to lofty heights of public approval or sink, conceivably into oblivion.
Because the struggle over Bork's nomination embodies a far-flung variety of controversies touching vital concerns of individuals and special-interest groups--from abortion and birth control to job discrimination and antitrust rules--millions of television viewers will be closely scrutinizing Biden as well as Bork, Democratic pollster Peter Hart said. "And, when the hearings are over," Hart added, "each man will get a judgment, one way or another."
The judgment on Bork will, of course, be on his suitability for the high court. The verdict on Biden will be based mainly on his ability to manage the hearings and himself.
The key question, analysts believe, is whether Biden will seem balanced in his beliefs and fair in his treatment of Bork--even though he opposes him and even though as a presidential candidate he can ill afford to antagonize the forces in his party who are bitterly opposed to Bork's conservative dicta and carry great weight in the nominating process.
For all of the difficulties posed by the Bork nomination, the hearings nevertheless offer Biden a welcome opportunity to turn attention away from the problems he has encountered as a presidential candidate.
These include the controversy that flared this past weekend over Biden's unattributed use in a televised Iowa campaign debate last month of stirring rhetoric initially delivered by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.
Biden later explained he did not have enough time to credit Kinnock, whereas he had taken care to credit Kinnock on other occasions.
Making the contest over Bork even more important is the fact that, until that struggle is settled, Biden will have little time for stumping in the hustings. "For the next 30 days this is his candidacy," Biden press secretary Larry Rasky said of the battle over Bork. Moreover, for most Americans, the hearings will provide their first close-up view of the hitherto relatively obscure senator.
While the three major networks are expected to announce their coverage plans today, the Public Broadcasting Service has scheduled gavel-to-gavel coverage, C-SPAN intends to rebroadcast the proceedings in the evening and Cable News Network will offer excerpts throughout the day.
No wonder then that, in the days before this confrontation, Biden drastically reduced his campaign schedule and retreated to the relatively cloistered comfort of "The Station," his rambling Georgian home on the outskirts of Wilmington. Here, he has been spending what aides reckon as "hundreds of hours" charting his course at the helm of the committee.
From a shady spot on his spacious lawn, while his son tossed a football to a friend nearby, Biden pored over Bork's record and a list of potential witnesses, pondering his predicament.
"I think it's the toughest dilemma any candidate could face," the 44-year-old senator said. "I don't think there is anyone who has run for the presidency in memory who has had as difficult a test as this will be because of the nature of the hearing process, the nature of the issues and the nature of the conflict."
To some extent, the pressure on Biden is an inevitable result of Bork's conservative views and the alarm they have created among such influential Democratic constituency groups as feminists, labor and blacks.
"If he doesn't take a strong enough position against Bork, liberals will think he has betrayed them," said Kathleen Jamieson, University of Texas political scientist and a specialist on television and presidential politics. "If he comes on too strong, it will hurt his chances to position himself as a centrist candidate."
But, for all the inherent difficulties, some critics say Biden has made things even harder for himself by what they regard as a string of gratuitous and inconsistent statements. In brief, months before Bork was nominated Biden said he would support him, a week after his nomination Biden said he would oppose him and 10 days after that he said his statement of opposition had been premature.
Some politicians viewed these self-inflicted wounds, most particularly his early declaration against Bork, as fatal to his presidential hopes. "Biden is dead," one Democratic Senate colleague of his, a moderate Southerner, told a reporter during a visit back home to take soundings on the presidential race and the Bork nomination. "Bork did it."