WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork moved to the edge of defeat Thursday as two key senators--a closely watched moderate Republican and a leading conservative Southern Democrat--announced their opposition to Bork.
But President Reagan, briefly answering questions at the end of a day that included a flurry of White House strategy sessions and Reagan's personal lobbying of a pivotal Democrat, insisted that the vote on the nomination can still be won. "I don't think that's decided yet, and I'm working my head off to make sure we don't lose it," he said.
"Frankly, I think it has been a disgraceful situation, because I think the process of confirming a Supreme Court justice has been reduced to a political, partisan struggle," Reagan said.
"The President is in the fight to the end," Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) vowed after meeting with Reagan. And, Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) declared: "Bork does not want to withdraw."
White House vote counters admitted, however, that the losses have placed the nomination in severe jeopardy. "It's not fatal," said veteran Republican lobbyist Tom Korologos, who has been leading the pro-Bork lobbying effort in the Senate. But, he conceded, "there is a little wishful thinking" in current pro-Bork tallies of support.
The announcements of opposition by Sens. J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, a Southern Democrat, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a moderate Republican, were particularly serious because each is a leading member of a bloc of votes Bork needs to win.
'Steamroller' of Opposition
Johnston, one of the Senate's most influential Southerners, predicted a "steamroller" of opposition, saying: "There is an inevitability about this vote. I think it's going to be overwhelmingly against Bork among the Southern Democrats." His prediction was bolstered by a poll of more than 6,000 Southern voters showing that Bork is opposed by a margin of 51% to 31%.
Because Democrats control the Senate, 54 to 46, Bork must receive at least some Democratic votes to win.
At this point, strategists on both sides count only two Democrats firmly for the nominee--Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina and Sen. John C. Stennis of Mississippi. At the same time, with Specter's announcement, two Republicans have now declared against Bork. The other is Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon.
The fight now centers on a shrinking group of undecided senators. Several pro- and anti-Bork vote counters number that group at 14--seven Democrats and seven Republicans. Reagan would have to win over 10 of them to confirm the controversial nominee.
The President met at midday for about 10 minutes with Bork, in a conference that was not listed on his public schedule.
Reagan 'Feels Positive'
"The President reassured Bork that he is still with him and intends to stay with him and fight the fight," a senior Reagan aide said. He said that Reagan recognizes the long odds he faces but "there is an instinct to keep fighting."
Reagan later told reporters that Bork "gave no indication" that he wants his name withdrawn. When asked whether the nomination appeared to be going "down the drain," Reagan said: "I don't seem to feel that way, and I haven't noticed him (Bork) shedding any tears."
Reagan conferred with Simpson, Thurmond and Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas also. Dole said later that Reagan "feels very positive about it."
But one Republican source described the mood in the White House as "fairly gloomy," as aides were trying to decide whether to recommend withdrawal of the nomination or let the Senate vote on it with little prospect of victory.
He said Reagan advisers have decided that, if more Republicans follow Specter in breaking ranks, the Bork nomination would be abandoned. Otherwise, the source said, the Administration would be inclined to let the battle continue and force the conservative Democrats to take the political heat for voting against a conservative nominee.
"You've got to fight the good fight and see if there's any way you can salvage it," a senior White House official said, and stop the "Republican hemorrhaging."
The official said that no decision is likely until after the Senate Judiciary Committee, which completed three weeks of hearings on Bork, votes Tuesday on whether to recommend his confirmation to the Senate.
Reagan's efforts on behalf of Bork Thursday included a White House meeting with 15 major corporate chief executives, in which he called for their support for the high court appointee, and a lobbying session with conservative Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama.
In an interview later, Heflin said that his arms now have been twisted by both sides "so much that they're both ready for transplants." However, he said, he remained "unequivocally undecided" and denied rumors that Reagan tried to influence him by considering an appointment of Alabama Supreme Court Justice Clement Clay Torbert Jr., a close friend of Heflin, to a federal appeals court post.