WASHINGTON -- Nervously keeping their fingers crossed, liberal civil rights groups awaited the potentially make-or-break decision on Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas later today by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
A massive, expensive effort to stop the Thomas nomination is now starting in earnest, rivaling in intensity the campaign that led to the defeat of court nominee Robert H. Bork four years ago. But it is an effort, some liberal activists concede privately, that probably has little or no chance of succeeding without the NAACP.
Without the NAACP, said a key civil rights source who asked not to be identified, an anti-Thomas fight could be weakened considerably because it "would be viewed as a fight lacking one of the most important participants. That is the biggest black constituency organization."
Another activist said that there is "enormous symbolic value" in what "a national black organization of its reputation does." Moreover, civil rights activists see the NAACP as a group with very real power to turn on grass-roots activity in a national fight.
In recent days, it has appeared likely that the NAACP's 64-member board of directors will finally decide -- and then announce this afternoon -- that it is opposed to Judge Thomas, a black, to succeed the only black who has ever served on the court, Justice Thurgood Marshall.
The NAACP, if it does take that position, probably would set the stage for another major participant to join in the anti-Thomas campaign: the civil rights community's influential umbrella group, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
The NAACP is a power within the Leadership Conference, and the NAACP's executive director, the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, is also the chair of the conference. Another major conference member, the AFL-CIO, is likely to announce its opposition later this week, it is understood here.
Two other prominent civil rights groups formally urged the Senate yesterday to reject Judge Thomas: the Women's Legal Defense Fund and People for the American Way. Those two groups, like the Leadership Conference, were key players in the 1987 fight against Judge Bork.
Judith Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, released a 75-page analysis of Judge Thomas' public record, concluding that it "reveals a complex, extensive pattern of disturbing actions and statements that makes us unwilling to entrust our constitutional future to his care."
His "most serious shortcoming," Ms. Lichtman said in answer to a question at a news conference, is that "he is a man totally insensitive to the needs of women, men and working families."
Arthur J. Kropp, president of the Action Fund of People for the American Way, ridiculed President Bush's claim that Judge Thomas was "the best person for the job." Said Mr. Kropp: "After examining his record very closely, we have come to the conclusion that he is not that at all."
Mr. Kropp said his organization will start a "massive public education campaign" to tell America about Judge Thomas' public record -- a move that the group thinks is critical to offset the nominee's "incredible personal story" as a childhood victim of racial bias and poverty.
Mr. Kropp also promised heavy "grass-roots activism" by his organization's 300,000 members.
Between those two organizations' news conferences, a Bush administration-sponsored group, Women for Judge Thomas, announced its formation and its pledge to work for the nominee.
Labor Secretary Lynn Martin told reporters that Mr. Thomas "understands, he knows the inequities, the indignities, the insensitivity" that women and minorities have had to face.
Both sides will be focusing their efforts on the general public in the next six weeks, seeking to build up pressure against or for Judge Thomas before the Senate Judiciary Committee opens hearings Sept. 10.