WASHINGTON - John Roberts is on track for a seat on the Supreme Court barring a misstep at hearings beginning Tuesday, according to supporters and critics who say the coming confirmation debate will test Senate Democrats as well as the nominee.
Relatively few Republicans and no Democrats have formally announced how they will vote on the nomination of the 50-year-old appeals court judge, saying they first want to follow the hearings.
Behind the studied show of neutrality, though, several Republicans who are tracking Roberts' nomination say he already has the likely support of all but two or three of 55 GOP senators and perhaps a few Democrats - enough to assure confirmation unless liberals launch a filibuster.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has vowed to preside over "efficient, dignified" hearings as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
President Bush named Roberts in July as the court's first new justice in 11 years. If confirmed, he would succeed Sandra Day O'Connor, who has often cast a deciding vote on abortion, affirmative action and other issues.
For Democrats and the liberal groups that have announced their opposition to the nomination, the objective "is to figure out what kind of justice John Roberts will be," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "Will he be an ideologue who imposes his views on everyone through the courts or will he be a mainstream justice, albeit a conservative one?"
Officials in both parties say they expect a party-line vote in committee, which has 10 Republicans and eight Democrats.
In the Senate as a whole, several Democrats are from states that Bush carried and that tend to vote Republican. They give Roberts an additional pool of potential supporters.