WASHINGTON -- Judge Clarence Thomas goes into another match-of-wits with Democratic senators tomorrow amid a widening perception on Capitol Hill that the momentum is pushing him toward the Supreme Court.
Now appearing to be something of a new media star, who gets slapped on the shoulder and pressed gently on the arm by crowding groups of well-wishers, Judge Thomas probably can trace the start of the favorable momentum behind his nomination to a fairly narrow range of time: between midday last Thursday and midmorning Friday.
He still has at least two hours more before the Senate Judiciary Committee and still must watch from afar as a parade of witnesses -- many firmly opposed to his nomination to succeed retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall -- testifies during perhaps four days of further hearings.
And he must await a Judiciary Committee debate over him, a vote in that panel, and a debate and final vote before the full Senate -- formal proceedings that may well run into early October.
But the puzzling shift of mood in the Senate Caucus Room that seemed to have occurred overnight Thursday has left Judge Thomas facing the rest of the fight with not a senator yet declared against him and the momentum seemingly well on his side of the most serious confirmation dispute since the Senate rejected Judge Robert H. Bork four years ago.
Strategists in the opposition, seeming as puzzled as other corridor denizens about the shift, were readying their plans to exploit in this week's challenging testimony a number of "negatives" that they detected in Judge Thomas' sometimes-difficult hours in the witness chair -- especially his refusal to talk about abortion and the distance he insisted on putting between his past speeches and writings and his judicial views today.
In conversations with small groups of reporters, the anti-Thomas lobbyists said they were certain that the nominee had done worse with each day of testimony, and their assessment seemed to be shared by at least one committee Democrat -- Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois.
But even Mr. Simon was predicting final Senate approval, and next to no one seemed to have evidence to contradict him -- at least as of Friday.
One of the swiftest mood changes seen in any recent Senate review of a court nominee had occurred before the Friday session even began. And when it did, the heavy sarcasm, biting partisan exchanges and deep solemnity of Thursday's session were replaced with often-easy camaraderie, gentle teasing and good humor, and a graying of the issues.
The change in mood, one Senate aide was heard saying to a reporter, had been "palpable." What made it even more difficult, for platoons of anti-Thomas lobbyists roaming the corridors, was that news clippings and televised commentaries overnight had begun to portray the fight as already just about over -- with a week of hearings still to go.
Judge Thomas, who had left many of the preceding days' sessions with his jaw firmly set, almost bounced out of the Senate Caucus Room by the end of the day Friday. He posed for photos with his wife, Virginia, who is taller, and admonished photographers to "make me look taller." He boomed out a laugh that his White House and Senate promoters have been hoping to hear in those echoing corridors. He waded into a crowd, leaving Mrs. Thomas behind, and energetically shook hands, turning to acknowledge even a touch to get his attention from anther angle.
The judge, who may well never be seen again in such a frankly political setting if the Senate does approve him to work in the withdrawn and solemn atmosphere of the Supreme Court building, did not even hesitate when a well-wisher pushed a notebook in front of him and asked for an autograph.
It was one of the few events in the hallways outside the Senate Caucus Room that did not appear to have been staged -- although his "handlers" have been taking him through the corridors, rather than out a committee back door, hoping for just such a "photo opportunity."
There were explanations forthcoming for the seeming switch in Senate atmospherics, although most of them were offered as tentative speculations. Among them:
* The TV imagery of Thursday's session, in which committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., accused the nominee of "sophistry" and of an "unartful dodge," may have suggested that Judge Thomas was being made a victim -- as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, had claimed.
The judge, his supporters insisted, had kept his cool amid the tension surrounding him -- a point disputed by his critics, who thought he came off as anxious and stubbornly resistant.
Whatever his performance at that time, his questioners found reasons to be in a markedly different mood Friday.
* Four days of hard questioning, met frequently by answers that sounded to critics like rote recordings of planned responses, had not persuaded a single senator to drop any more than vague hints of leaning against the nomination.
* Two senators thought to have been troubled by the way Judge Thomas was answering -- Democrats Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Howell Heflin of Alabama -- had not lived up to corridor spectators' expectations that they would continue their probing, sharp-edged questions.
Neither senator, when his turn came to question Judge Thomas, made any notable trouble for the nominee, and Mr. Heflin repeatedly gave the judge openings to talk about what seemed to be his favorite topic: the grandfather who started him on his way by urging him, always, to "stand up for himself."
Mr. Leahy, who had sternly insisted that Judge Thomas read an article against abortion rights so that he could be pressed further about it when Mr. Leahy's next round came, brought it up late in his questioning and then only briefly, after almost dismissing its significance by joking about it.
* Finally, there was said to be fatigue: weariness over back-to-back, concentrated days before TV cameras, followed by repeated encounters before hallway cameras to persuade reporters to interpret what had gone on in the hearing room this way or that, and fatigue among Democratic senators over a seeming inability to start any anti-Thomas momentum.
The one major gain that anti-Thomas forces were confident they had made through the week was that, despite the nominee's repeated references to his impoverished childhood in the hamlet of Pin Point, Ga., he had been forced to defend his fitness for a Supreme Court seat before sometimes quite skeptical senators.
Judith Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund and one of the principal strategists in the opposition leadership, remarked before the Friday session: "The glow of Pin Point is fading."
Between now and Friday, in an effort that anti-Thomas strategists hope will cause the momentum to switch their way, their witnesses will do what can be done to keep the spotlight away from Pin Point and on Clarence Thomas' fitness to be a justice.