WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 -- John Ashcroft pledged Wednesday that as President-elect George W. Bush's attorney general, he would not challenge Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized a woman's right to an abortion, before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ashcroft, a firm opponent of abortion who once labeled Roe "a miserable failure," told senators at his confirmation hearing Wednesday: "The Supreme Court very clearly doesn't want to deal with that issue again."

Democrats conceded that Ashcroft, a conservative Christian, is likely to win confirmation, despite vehement opposition from women's organizations and civil rights groups.

The former Missouri senator also said he would defend the constitutionality of gun restrictions that he opposed as a senator, after Sen. Diane Feinstein, a California Democrat, asked him why he worked to defeat her proposals to make gun crimes subject to racketeering laws.

"I don't believe the Second Amendment to be one that forbids any regulation of guns," Ashcroft said. "There are a number of enactments I would not prefer as policy but which I believe would be constitutional."

He opposed Feinstein's measure, Ashcroft said, after the American Civil Liberties Union and others cited government abuses of the racketeering statutes to seize defendants' property

Of Roe, Ashcroft added that for the Justice Department to press the matter before the high court would damage its standing on other matters.

Democrats also chastised Ashcroft for his conservative rhetoric in 1998, when he unsuccessfully sought to build his support among social and religious conservatives into a bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

"There are two things you find in the middle of the road: a moderate and a dead skunk," Ashcroft said at the time. On Wednesday, he called it a humorous effort to emphasize his conservatism.

"I expect our party generally to state pretty strong conservative views, and start negotiating with the idea that by the time you finish, we're going to have...something people can generally support," he said.

Ashcroft recalled that when he led the National Association of State Attorneys General, "I understood I had to sacrifice some of my advocacy roles."

Ashcroft said he would follow that practice as attorney general.

While questioning Ashcroft about his past rhetoric, Democrats conceded they expect him to win Senate approval.

Ashcroft's grilling by Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee began Tuesday and is expected to end Thursday. Tuesday, he said his deeply held conservative and religious beliefs would not undermine his commitment to enforcing federal laws.

"I understand that being attorney general means enforcing the laws as they are written, not enforcing my own personal preferences," Ashcroft said.

Civil rights laws should be vigorously enforced, he said, because "from racial profiling to news of unwarranted strip searches, the list of injustice in America today is still long."

And abortion, Ashcroft said, is the "settled law of the land."

"I believe Roe vs. Wade, as an original matter, was wrongly decided. I am personally opposed to abortion," Ashcroft said. But, he added, "The Supreme Court's decisions on this have been multiple, they have been recent, and they have been emphatic."

As he finished his opening statement, several protesters began yelling "Ashcroft kills!" Capitol police had to drag one of them out of the packed hearing room while the others left peacefully. Ashcroft is a strong defender of the death penalty.

The outburst was evidence of the strong passions the nomination has stirred among civil rights organizations, black groups, church-state separation advocates, abortion rights lobbyists, and other liberal interest groups. With these loyal Democrats in an uproar over Ashcroft, committee Democrats took a hard edge with their former colleague.

They noted that the recently defeated Missouri senator has worked to outlaw abortion, restrict gun control, and end federal affirmative action programs.

"The issue boils down to this: When you have been such a zealous and impassioned advocate, how do you just turn it off?" said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "This may be an impossible task."

In bending over backward to assuage fears that he is too ideologically rigid to be the nation's top law enforcement officer, Ashcroft appeared intent on keeping what is now a political brush fire from flaring up and engulfing his nomination.

With the Senate split 50-50, Ashcroft would be defeated only if all Democrats and at least one Republican voted against him. With no Republican publicly against him and many Democrats expressing confidence that he will be confirmed, defeat seems unlikely.

But the strategy of the liberal groups has been to keep Democrats who are inclined to confirm Ashcroft from saying so publicly in the hope that the hearings will produce enough damaging information to shift the political winds against him.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who will take back the Judiciary Committee gavel after Saturday, noted the good publicity that Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., an Orthodox Jew, received last year when Al Gore selected him as his presidential running mate.

"Unfortunately, many left-wing groups have not been as supportive of your religious beliefs and convictions," Hatch told Ashcroft, a member of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination that believes abortion, homosexuality, and illegal drug use are sins.

Ashcroft said his religious views would not interfere with his commitment to enforce the law. If a situation arose "where the two came into conflict," Ashcroft said, "then I would have to resign."

Apparently concerned that Hatch's line of questioning made liberals out as religious bigots, Leahy said to Ashcroft: "I just want to make it very clear. Have you heard any senator, Republican or Democrat, suggest that there should be a religious test on your confirmation?"

Leahy clearly expected an answer in the negative, because he reacted with surprise when Ashcroft paused, then screwed up his face. "A number of senators have said, 'Will your religion keep you from being able to perform your duties in office?'" Ashcroft answered slowly.

"Well, I'm amazed at that," Leahy replied.

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