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Smile! Supreme Court nominees and the art of the schmooze

Last Updated Jul 11, 2018 at 2:21 pm EDT

White House Counsel Don McGahan, center, and former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., leave a meeting between Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, July 11, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON – Brett Kavanaugh’s wooing of the Senate is part of a time-honoured tradition, including awkward grip-and-grin photo ops and light conversation that skirts the contentious issues that lie ahead.

Here’s what to watch for as Kavanaugh makes the rounds on Capitol Hill ahead of his confirmation hearing to become the next Supreme Court justice:

THE SHERPA

Soon after getting the president’s blessing, every nominee will arrive on Capitol Hill and be ushered into select Senate offices to make nice.

The purpose of these private meetings isn’t to smooth over differences just yet. It’s to pay homage — or “kiss the ring” — of influential senators.

In Kavanaugh’s case, helping him to navigate the Senate hallways is Jon Kyl, a retired senator and former Senate Republican whip whose job it once was to rally other GOP senators and count votes. This week, his focus is on getting Kavanaugh face time with key senators and coaching him not to say anything that might sink his nomination.

It’s a familiar tactic. In 2017, Trump’s first Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, made the rounds with former Sen. Kelly Ayotte as his sherpa, who advised the affable candidate to “be yourself” and talk about family and hobbies.

In other words, abortion or health care might be on everyone’s minds, but this first week for Kavanaugh is about a single catch phrase: “I look forward to the confirmation process.”

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THE KINGMAKERS

Kavanaugh has already met with three Senate lions — Republicans Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch, each of whom has served more than three decades (Hatch and Grassley were elected to the Senate before Kavanaugh finished high school).

As GOP Senate leader, McConnell, R-Ky., is the master kingmaker who will champion Kavanaugh’s nomination on the floor. Grassley, R-Iowa, is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who will set the tone for Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. And Hatch, R-Utah, is a former Judiciary chairman who has played a key role in past judicial nominations.

Also meeting with Kavanaugh is Sen. Lindsey Graham, a former military prosecutor who has become golf buddies with Trump, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, whose job it will be as the Senate Republican whip to keep the GOP in line and ensure the simple majority vote that would confirm Kavanaugh.

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PERMA-GRIN

A big part of this tradition is the photo op. With cameras flashing, the nominee extends his or her hand to a senator and the two pose awkwardly for a photo.

The optics matter. The senators get to bill themselves as the kingmakers, while the nominee makes clear he or she respects the Senate’s unique role of advice and consent.

But that’s not to say it’s easy. While the politicians often appear at ease in the spotlight — most senators spend their lives in front of cameras or schmoozing with donors and voters — nominees can often appear stilted as they are forced to interview for a job with the whole world watching.

“I was just counselled not to be nervous. That’s almost impossible,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 after President Barack Obama announced her nomination.

For his part, Kavanaugh played the role as expected this week. He made the rounds in a conservative dark suit and blue tie, spoke little and smiled for the cameras, his perma-grin firmly intact.