WASHINGTON -- Another battle appears to be brewing over a top nominee of President Clinton.
A number of conservative groups are mobilizing to block the president's choice for surgeon general, Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders, asserting that she wants to bring sex education to kindergartners.
Her defenders contend that the religious right is trying to smear one of the most innovative thinkers on sexual responsibility for the young.
Dr. Elders, a pediatrician who was director of the Arkansas Health Department when Mr. Clinton was governor of that state, would succeed George Bush's appointee, Dr. Antonia C. Novello, as the Public Health Service official who serves as the president's top medical adviser.
Dr. Elders has a reputation for being an outspoken proponent of sex education and AIDS prevention programs among children in elementary schools to promote better public health and to inhibit unwanted pregnancies.
Dr. Elders, who has been credited with upgrading programs on prenatal care and childhood immunization in Arkansas, also favors abortion rights and the distribution of Norplant, a surgically implanted birth control device, to prostitutes to prevent pregnancies.
White House officials say they are confident they have a comfortable margin of support for Dr. Elders on the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which will hold hearings on her nomination next Friday.
The committee has 10 Democratic members and seven Republicans, and none of the Democrats has shown any inclination yet to vote against her.
But, given the difficulties encountered last month with the failed nomination of Lani Guinier to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the White House is not taking any chances.
Officials there have spent this week lining up a broad range of endorsements for Dr. Elders, who would be the first black woman to serve as surgeon general.
A White House document entitled "Public Endorsements for Dr. Elders as of 5:20 p.m., July 8, 1993," lists 74 groups favorable to her nomination.
They include the American Medical Association and the National Urban League.
Jan Parshall, a spokeswoman for Concerned Women of America, which was founded in 1979 to oppose the feminist movement and claims to have 600,000 members in 50 states, said her group was leading the charge against the nomination.
The group is being assisted by the Christian Coalition, the Traditional Values Coalition and the Family Research Council.
"We cannot afford to let Dr. Elders do to America what she did to Arkansas," Mrs. Parshall said. "She believes in comprehensive sexuality education beginning in kindergarten. These are children, many of whom don't know their colors and numbers yet, and she would propose violating their innocence and modesty.
"That is tantamount to educational child abuse. It has not worked in Arkansas to reduce teen pregnancies, and it won't work on the country. America needs a second opinion on the position of surgeon general."
Donna E. Shalala, the secretary of health and human services, said such a view distorts Dr. Elders' "record in an effort to prove their claims. Dr. Elders supports comprehensive health training for our nation's children, but that does not mean inappropriate sex education topics for young children, as her critics suggest."