By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington
Judge Samuel Alito has survived a gruelling week of hearings with a methodical, bland approach to his questioners that now sees him just two short steps away from a seat on the US Supreme Court.
Judge Alito managed to avoid any major gaffes
In 18 hours of cross-examination in which he answered - or didn't answer, say critics - almost 700 questions, Mr Alito, 55, managed to avoid any major political pitfalls.
That is not to say the judge had an easy ride before the panel of senators which is considering his suitability for the post.
He had to endure Democratic senators' harsh questions as they tried to establish whether he was a conservative zealot.
After a Republican senator asked him rhetorically " Are you really a closet bigot?", Judge Alito's wife was reduced to tears and left the committee room.
More than 100 questions were asked of the judge on two of the most controversial topics likely to come before the Supreme Court - abortion rights and the use of executive power.
The judge once wrote that he didn't think the constitution guaranteed a woman's right to an abortion.
In the hearings he said that, if confirmed, he would be open-minded about the issue.
But while Judge Alito repeatedly pledged support for judicial precedent, he pointedly refused to say that the 1973 Roe v Wade decision that legalised the right to abortion was "settled law".
He was careful though not to limit his legal options on any issue.
On executive power, he said there were cases that fell into what he called a twilight zone and which would need to be examined on an individual basis.
While he faced probing questions about his membership of the retrograde Concerned Alumni of Princeton group, an investigation into the records of the society revealed he was never an active member.
Republicans on the committee have praised Mr Alito's record and poise.
President Bush rang the judge from the presidential plane, Air Force One, on Thursday to tell him that he was proud of the way he had handled the questioning, and that he "showed great class".
Democrats have complained that his answers were evasive and incomplete - and say Americans don't know much more about Mr Alito now than they did before.
They have now signalled that they may request a one-week delay in a vote to send the nomination to the full Senate, to further scrutinise the judge's testimony.
Republicans have a majority on the judiciary committee of 10 to eight, and a full Senate majority of 55 to 45.
Once the senate committee has voted on his appointment, the full Senate is likely to follow suit a week later.
Mr Alito will therefore be confirmed unless some Republicans vote against him, or Democrats use parliamentary procedure to block a vote.
Republicans have a 55-45 majority in the Senate
Most pundits believe this will not happen, because the hearings failed to land a significant blow against the nominee.
Yet an editorial in the respected New York Times newspaper said there had been a number of "quiet bombshells" that should give cause for concern.
"In his deadpan bureaucrat's voice, Alito has said some truly disturbing things about his view of the law," said the Times.
The paper said the nominee had given ample evidence that he continued to believe that the US constitution did not confer the right to an abortion, and that moderate Republicans should take heed.
Cases on the horizon
The long-term consequences of the process are now coming into focus, as a number of controversial cases loom on the US Supreme Court schedule.
The Democrats contend that Mr Alito is likely to swing the court to the right in replacing the centrist Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
She provided decisive votes on the country's most divisive issues, like abortion, capital punishment and affirmative action.
In February, the court will consider a case involving campaign finance law and political expenditure in Vermont.
It will also hear a case brought by the League of United Latin Americans which is fighting political redistricting in Texas.
Other cases on the court's agenda involve potential breaches of environmental protection legislation, the rights of police to stop and search parolees without basis for suspicion, and the admissibility of evidence of third party guilt in a death penalty case.
Such issues underscore the great influence that Supreme Court justices have on American lives, and why their selection is such a political event.