WASHINGTON — Judge Robert H. Bork astonished political handicappers Friday by refusing to abandon his seemingly doomed nomination to the Supreme Court, saying that his withdrawal would only encourage future "public campaigns of distortion" against judicial nominees.
In an emotion-charged White House statement, Bork said that his opponents' unusually bitter crusade against his confirmation could set a "dangerous" precedent for bringing politics into Senate reviews of nonpartisan judicial nominees.
"Were the fate of Robert Bork the only matter at stake, I would ask the President to withdraw my nomination," Bork said, his voice breaking and jaw trembling. "The most serious and lasting injury in all of this, however, is not to me. . . . Rather, it is to the dignity and integrity of law and of public service in this country."
53 Votes Against Him
White House officials held scant hope that Bork's dramatic stand could sway a Senate that appears solidly committed against elevating him to the Supreme Court. Already, 53 of the 100 senators have declared their opposition to him, and several others are leaning that way.
More likely, some congressional experts predicted, the decision to press the nomination in the Senate will provoke a blistering floor fight between conservative Republicans and those lawmakers, Republican and Democrat alike, who turned the tide against Bork.
"I find it, frankly, mystifying," one Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic aide said of the decision. "The longer it drags out, the more harm to Republicans."
Bork elected on his own to remain in the fight, telling President Reagan of his decision Friday afternoon in a meeting with White House advisers in the President's residence, officials said.
No Doubts About Strategy
Neither Reagan nor the advisers, who included Vice President George Bush and White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr., voiced any doubts about the strategy, said a senior Administration official who refused to be named.
Reagan later said that he is "pleased" by Bork's decision and that he will "fight on for an independent judiciary" in the days left before a Senate vote on the nomination. Senate leaders said the debate on the nomination will begin on Oct. 20 and last about two weeks.
The President will speak on the nomination in his weekly radio address today, and a nationally televised speech on the subject in the next week has not been ruled out, one senior official said.
Conservative activists said that Bork's startling move gives them a chance to pull a political victory out of what appeared to be a stunning defeat.
"This will shift the focus of the debate from Bork to Bork's accusers--the Kennedys and Bidens who carried on this McCarthyite campaign of disinformation," said Michael McDonald, president of the Washington Legal Foundation. He was referring to Senate Judiciary Committee members Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Bork's leading critics.
The White House, refusing to formally concede defeat in the nomination battle, will not consider other nominees for the vacant Supreme Court seat until Bork has been voted down, one official said.
'A Very Long Shot'
But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called the nomination "a very long shot" and said that lobbying now will focus "not at winning the vote but at making the point and educating the country . . . trying to see to it that future nominees don't have to be subjected to this sort of thing."
Fitzwater called Bork's decision "a very eloquent and high-minded action on his part--typically un-Washington."
"It might be a healthy debate for Washington to see," he said of the Senate confirmation battle.
One of the Bork opponents' key strategists, civil rights leader Ralph Neas, said Friday that critics "look forward to a debate on Robert Bork's record, for the best evidence against confirmation is that record."
"There is no way successfully to distort what the American people saw in 12 days of public hearings" on Bork's confirmation last month, said Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Long Debate Sought
A White House official indicated that the Administration would not oppose an early vote on Bork's nomination, although some conservative lawmakers are pressing for a longer debate to keep the issue in the public eye.
If Bork is rejected by the Senate, as expected, White House domestic policy adviser Gary L. Bauer said Friday, the Administration will probably move quickly to nominate a replacement for the high court seat, vacant since July.
Bork's announcement may nevertheless spell deadlock for the Supreme Court through most of its current term, which began this week. Nearly one-fourth of last year's cases were decided by the vote of now-retired Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.