WASHINGTON — Robert H. Bork, saying "I harbor no illusions" about the outcome, defiantly refused on Friday to abandon his seemingly hopeless effort to win Senate confirmation to the Supreme Court.
In a dramatic announcement that many White House officials had expected would be a withdrawal statement, Bork lashed out at the tactics of his opponents and said they must not be allowed to defeat him before the votes are counted.
"A crucial principle is at stake," he said. "That principle is the way in which we select the men and women who guard the liberties of all the American people.
"That should not be done through public campaigns of distortion," a grim-faced Bork said in a nationally broadcast appearance in the White House press room. "If I withdrew now, that campaign would be seen as a success and it would be mounted against future nominees.
"For the sake of the federal judiciary and the American people, that must not happen," Bork declared.
Bork announced his decision after meeting at the White House with President Reagan and his senior advisers. Reagan issued a statement later saying, "I am pleased by Judge Bork's decision to go forward."
Bork's decision had been such a tightly held secret that White House speech writers prepared two sets of remarks for Reagan: one if Bork dropped out and another if he stayed in.
Bork's decision--and Reagan's willingness to go along with it--means that the President cannot move quickly to name a new candidate, and that could leave the high court with a vacancy for months to come.
However, a White House official said, "Realizing the long-shot nature (of Bork's nomination) I am sure that there will be some scrutiny of alternative candidates" by the Justice Department.
Reagan accused Bork's opponents of waging "an attack based on innuendoes, mistruths and distortions to shield Bob Bork's real record of integrity, decency, fairness and, above all, judicial restraint."
The Senate will not take up the nomination until the week of Oct. 19, at the earliest. But the outcome seems relatively certain. An Associated Press tally showed 53 senators on the record against confirmation, more than enough to kill Bork's chance of sitting on the nation's highest court.
Bork said, "In the days remaining, I ask only that voices be lowered, the facts respected and the deliberations conducted in a manner that will be fair to me and to the infinitely larger and more important cause of justice in America."
Despite Bork's plea for lowered voices, Reagan used a television interview Friday to name three prominent Senate Democrats as "principal leaders in the lynch-mob assault" that he said had caused Bork's difficulties.
In the interview, on Cable News Network, Reagan named Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who were vigorous critics of Bork during the panel's hearings.
Reagan's comments were quickly called "offensive" by Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) in a speech on the Senate floor.
"You know, it's a curious thing to me, when you win around here it's a great victory for the American people, and when you lose it's a lynch-mob mentality," he said in remarks directed at Reagan.
'Very Long Shot'
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said, "We are very realistic about the numbers and any possibility of winning. It is a very long shot in that regard."
Bork's announcement ended days of speculation that he was about to withdraw. Although professing support for Bork, the White House had left ample room for him to pull out, with Reagan saying it was up to Bork to decide whether to stay and fight.
After deliberating overnight, Bork went to the White House with his wife, Mary Ellen, and their three children.
Reagan did not know of Bork's decision in advance, said a White House official who declined to be identified. When they met in the West Sitting Hall, which is the family living room, Bork showed Reagan the statement he planned to read before the cameras announcing his intention to fight.
Reagan said that was what he had hoped Bork would say, the official related.
Appearing alone later in the press room, Bork complained, "When judicial nominees are assessed and treated like political candidates, the effect will be to chill the climate in which judicial deliberations take place, to erode public confidence in the impartiality of our judges and to endanger the independence of the judiciary."
Before Bork's announcement, the Administration appeared to be laying the groundwork for his withdrawal. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III had said that the White House could be ready quickly with a substitute if Bork bowed out.
Critics have accused Bork of taking too narrow a view of the Constitution on such issues as protection of civil rights and liberties, singling out his argument that there is no general right to privacy guaranteed by the Constitution.
Opponents also said he changed his position at his confirmation hearings to take a broader view of equal protection for women, but they said he would work to reverse the landmark ruling legalizing abortion.
Bork's supporters portray him as a brilliant scholar who has fallen victim to unfair attacks by liberals.