By Ginger Gibson and Julia Harte
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Christine Blasey Ford began her testimony in front of a Senate committee by saying she was “terrified,” and at times she looked it.
But by the time she finished detailing her allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers, Ford was being widely praised as credible and brave.
Before the Senate hearing on Thursday, Ford had never appeared on camera, and was only depicted in news media reports with a grainy photo lifted from the internet.
She emerged in the eyes of many American women as a compelling figure in the #MeToo movement that is usually associated less with the names of victims and more with a list of high-profile men accused of misconduct.
Thousands of conservatives took to social media to accuse Ford of lying to bring down Kavanaugh, who angrily and tearfully denied her accusations in a day of dramatic, high-stakes testimony from both the accused and the accuser.
While Republican senators depicted her testimony as part of a partisan attack orchestrated by Democrats, they — and Kavanaugh — were careful not to attack Ford personally.
And outside Congress, even many prominent conservatives were willing to praise Ford.
“Dr. Ford comes across as a credible person who has suffered the serious emotional impact of a disturbing incident in her teens,” said Alice Stewart, a conservative strategist who has worked on several Republican presidential campaigns. “This will boil down to the sincere credibility of someone with nothing to gain versus the sincere credibility of someone with everything to lose.”
Right-wing commentator Mike Cernovich tweeted, “Ford seems kind. This doesn’t strike me as partisan.” Fox News commentator Chris Wallace called Ford’s testimony “extremely credible” and a “disaster for the Republicans.”
Moira Donegan, a writer and prominent voice in the #MeToo movement, said Ford struck a chord among American women.
“So many women around the country were watching it together in rooms and texting one another about what they were seeing, identifying with her,” said Donegan said.
Still, even many Republicans who believed Ford was honestly recounting what happened to her took the view that it was a case of mistaken identity, believing Kavanaugh‘s emotional testimony that was not there and did not attack her.
The Republican Party posted online videos of women supporting Kavanaugh throughout Ford’s testimony.
Ford, a 51-year-old psychology professor from California, began her appearance by asking for a cup of coffee, her jaw tight with nerves. Her voice cracked at times as she then gave an emotional account of the alleged assault in 1982.
When a male senator read Kavanaugh’s denial, Ford appeared to shudder. She appeared to be close to tears at times, but she was firm and dignified throughout.
A GoFundMe page to support Ford and pay for her security and legal expenses quickly doubled its fundraising total after it was mentioned during the hearing.
It had already raised the initial target of $150,000 before the hearing and that jumped about $250,000 on Thursday to over $412,000 — from a total of 8,888 people with average donations of about $46.
RAINN, a group that provides a support hot line for victims of sexual assault and crimes, said it saw a 147 percent increase above the normal volume of people reaching out for help.
An analysis of social media sentiment conducted by the Ipsos polling firm using an artificial intelligence prototype found that positive sentiment directed toward Ford increased each time she spoke, said pollster Chris Jackson.
“People were responding to her very strongly,” Jackson said, although he also cautioned that it measured posts on Twitter and Facebook and was not a representation of total public sentiment.
It was Ford’s telling the committee she now has two front doors at her home — a decision she said she made because of the lasting trauma of the alleged assault — that convinced Kathleen Pierman, 66, who watched the testimony at home.
“She didn’t seem in it for gain,” said Pierman, who lives in the suburbs of Cleveland. She said she found Kavanaugh more convincing than she expected, but said confirming him would be a “huge mistake” because “no one will trust the Supreme Court.”
Three political scientists who specialize in voting behavior and political psychology told Reuters they expected Ford’s testimony to galvanize female Democratic voters to vote in November.
(Reporting by Ginger Gibson and Julia Harte; editing by Jonathan Oatis)