Video: Who will succeed Alberto Gonzales?

updated 8/30/2007 8:41:31 AM ET 2007-08-30T12:41:31

Senators urged President Bush on Wednesday to avoid a confirmation battle over the next attorney general by picking a unifying nominee to heal a Justice Department reeling from accusations of playing politics.

The White House has dispatched some of its top aides to talk to key lawmakers on Senate and House judiciary committees, seeking names of candidates to replace Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who will step down Sept. 17.

Gonzales, who announced his resignation Monday, has been criticized over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys. Republicans and Democrats alike have challenged Gonzales' credibility over the firings and the Bush administration's terrorist surveillance programs.

Advice and consent
In a letter Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he looks forward to advising Bush in selecting a new attorney general who "will unite the nation."

Leahy's committee will largely decide whether to approve Bush's nominee to be the nation's 81st attorney general.

"There are a number of candidates, any one of whom could be a unifying nominee and serve as an outstanding attorney general," Leahy wrote, asking that Sen. Arlen Specter, the Judiciary Committee's top Republican, also be included in talks with Bush.

"We all want a Department of Justice worthy of its name and great tradition," Leahy wrote.

Republicans, too, said Bush needs to pick someone known more for his professional credentials than for ideology or politics.

"We need somebody with real stature and a proven record who can restore the morale at the department and be more than a caretaker," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and a Judiciary Committee member, said in a telephone interview.

Video: Gonzales analysis

Five candidates?
So far, no clear favorite has emerged out of more than two dozen names - most of them highly speculative - that have surfaced as possible candidates. The White House has signaled it is seriously considering five contenders, but has declined to name them, and won't likely decide on a nominee until after Bush returns from an overseas trip Sept. 9.

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But three candidates - Solicitor General Paul Clement, former Deputy Attorney General George Terwilliger and former Solicitor General Ted Olson - were singled out by Judiciary Committee senators interviewed Wednesday by The Associated Press. All three are considered conservative, skilled lawyers.

Clement is meticulous and affable, has friends across the political spectrum, and is said to be interested in a seat on a federal appellate court. He will serve as acting attorney general after Gonzales leaves.

Terwilliger was the Justice Department's No. 2 for two years under President George H. W. Bush after serving as U.S. attorney in Vermont. While in Vermont, he prosecuted bomb smugglers coming over the Canadian border and was tough on drug defendants. He also was accused of making insensitive comments to a female deputy in his office - a topic that came up during his confirmation hearings.

Olson was an assistant attorney general during the Reagan administration and solicitor general from 2001 to 2004. He is said to have sided with the Justice Department, and against the White House, in refusing to approve potentially illegal terror surveillance activities in March 2004 - an episode that would endear him to Democrats. However, Olson also served as Bush's lawyer in the Supreme Court case that determined the result of the disputed 2000 presidential election.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., praised Olson as "a legendary figure in the law" and said Clement "understands how the Justice Department works." Sessions called Olson and Terwilliger "good" candidates.

And Clement "has an excellent reputation," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. "He seems to understand the importance of rule of law. It is too early to tell, but he might - and underline might - be the kind of compromise candidate we're talking about."

Top White House aides - including chief of staff Joshua Bolten and his deputy, Joel Kaplan, presidential counsel Fred Fielding, and political advisers Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie - have been quietly seeking recommendations from lawmakers since Gonzales' abrupt resignation.

In his own discussion with Bolten, Sen. Sam Brownback said he urged the White House to "try to get somebody we could clear through relatively quickly with the Democrat Congress."

Ultimately, the new attorney general needs to be someone career Justice Department lawyers can respect, said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. "You need a leader who will be able to put the Justice Department back on the right path," he said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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