Washington (AFP) - The fate of Donald Trump's US Supreme Court nominee increasingly appears to lie in the hands of two Republican senators, pro-choice moderates with a penchant for rebellion -- and who have bucked the president before.
But despite extraordinary pressure already heaped on Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski by liberal groups, and Democrats who warn that confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh could spell disaster for women's rights and health care, the pair have given little indication that they will reject him.
With Trump's Republicans clinging to a narrow 51-49 Senate majority, and Senator John McCain battling brain cancer and unlikely to vote, a single GOP defection could sink Kavanaugh if all Democrats unite against him.
Collins, from Maine, and Alaska's Murkowski are two genuine mavericks in the Republican Party, and all eyes have turned to them.
Both voted against Trump's effort to repeal the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, and they objected furiously to a measure that would have stripped funding from women's health organization Planned Parenthood.
Now Democrats -- who as the minority party have few options to block the Kavanaugh confirmation process -- are desperate for their support once more as they weigh what many see as one of the most consequential decisions of Trump's presidency.
Kavanaugh, 53, has been picked to fill the vacancy left by retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, who for years was positioned at the very center of the court, giving him a place of prominence among the nine justices.
He was making the rounds on Capitol Hill Wednesday, paying courtesy calls tp some of the senators who will decide his fate.
A Kavanaugh confirmation would spell a decisive shift to the right for the top judicial body.
While Collins has praised Kavanaugh's "impressive credentials," which include a dozen years as a federal judge, she said she would vote against any nominee who is "hostile" to Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that cemented the legality of abortions nationwide.
And yet she is unlikely to press the issue directly with Kavanaugh.
"I do not apply an ideological test to their personal views," Collins told reporters Tuesday.
"I obviously want the opportunity to sit down with him one on one to get a better sense of his judicial philosophy."
Kavanaugh has not openly expressed a position on abortion, and tradition suggests he will not during his upcoming confirmation hearing or in meetings with lawmakers.
But Trump campaigned on a pledge to nominate anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court, and all potential nominees on his short list were vetted by the pro-life conservative Federalist Society.
- Under pressure -
Collins has backed all three conservative justices nominated by Republican presidents while she has been in office.
"She has tended to vote for the nominees, and I think it's pretty likely she'll do that again," said professor Amy Fried, chair of the University of Maine's Department of Political Science.
Murkowski, for her part, has signalled that Kavanaugh is more palatable than other choices on Trump's short list.
"Let's put it this way: There were some who have been on the list that I would have had a very, very difficult time supporting," she told Politico.
While the Kavanaugh pick may have assuaged some of Murkowski's concerns, she says she will comprehensively review the nominee, whose written opinions on more than 300 court cases, and years in president George W Bush's administration, provide a lengthy paper trail for lawmakers to scour.
The White House meanwhile has leaned on them, with Trump meeting separately with the two shortly after Kennedy's resignation announcement.
Democrats have launched a massive pressure campaign in Alaska and Maine. The group Demand Justice is conducting a reported $5 million push, while NARAL Pro-Choice America has taken out full-page ads in Maine newspapers highlighting the issue.
Conservative groups are on the counterattack, with Judicial Crisis Network announcing a $1.4 million pro-Kavanaugh ad buy in three states that heavily backed Trump in 2016, and where Senate Democrats face tough re-election fights in November.
Senators Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and West Virginia's Joe Manchin will no doubt face massive pressure from their own party to toe the line and vote no.
"I will talk to my colleagues," Democratic Senator Kamala Harris told AFP, referring to Collins and Murkowski, as well as the three red-state Democrats, each of whom voted for Trump's first Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch last year.
"They're in a difficult situation," said the University of Maine's Fried.
"You don't want to make your own base angry."
Collins and Murkowski will also need to weigh those concerns ahead of the Kavanaugh vote.