Moving quickly to replace Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, White House officials are considering five names that "have kind of emerged" as possible candidates to take over the beleaguered Justice Department, according to a senior Bush administration official.
The official who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak more openly about the process declined to identify the five contenders who were being looked at "pretty seriously."
White House officials have consulted more than 20 members of Congress - Democrats and Republicans alike - about possible successors to Gonzales, who announced Monday that is leaving office on Sept. 17.
Interviews with current and former Justice Department officials, congressional aides, attorneys and other legal experts yielded as many as 24 names of possible, if highly speculative candidates for the attorney general's job.
When contacted Tuesday, several contenders asked to remain anonymous and flatly said they did not want the job. Others declined to comment.
"I love the Department of Justice - it's the most wonderful professional experience I've had in my life," said Ted Olson, a former solicitor general for the Bush administration who declined to say whether he has discussed the attorney general's job with the White House or whether he would accept the post if offered.
Similarly, George Terwilliger, a deputy attorney general under former President George H.W. Bush who has emerged as an often-mentioned contender, declined to comment.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who formerly chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, once said he would take the job if offered.
When asked if he would take the job of running the Justice Department, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson sent word through a spokeswoman that "he's very happy in this role" as general counsel at PepsiCo.
Solicitor General Paul Clement could remain acting attorney general for an indefinite time after Gonzales leaves.
Confirmation drama anticipated
White House officials said Tuesday it was unlikely that a successor would be named before Bush returns Sept. 9 from a state visit to Australia and meetings with world leaders at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. He leaves Washington next Monday.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, predicted it will be tough for the White House to find Gonzales' successor.
"I think it's going to be very challenging to find somebody who would be willing to accept that nomination," Cornyn said. "It's going to be a very tough partisan environment. Anybody in their right mind would have to be extremely thoughtful about whether they want to subject" themselves to the kind of environment Gonzales endured.
Gonzales announced his resignation Monday after seven months of criticism that began with a congressional investigation into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys. The inquiry led to Republicans and Democrats alike questioning Gonzales' honesty on a range of topics - including the administration's domestic terrorism spying program.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said conservative candidates wouldn't necessarily be rejected - as long as they pledged to check their politics at the Justice Department's door.
"They'd be ideologically conservative, but at the same time, who we would find acceptable, people who we believe would put the rule of law first and politics last," Schumer told CNN. "Sort of the inverse of what Attorney General Gonzales did."
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, also mentioned as a candidate, said little Tuesday during a to Mobile, Ala., about whether he may succeed Gonzales, instead praising the attorney general as "a dedicated public servant and a good friend."
Accompanying Chertoff was Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who said "I know the president would like to have him as attorney general and I know he would like to have him as head of DHS."
Also mentioned as a possible candidate is Laurence H. Silberman, a senior judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Several Democrats and legal experts said Silberman would have difficulty winning confirmation because of his political resume - including overturning Oliver North's conviction and discrediting Anita Hill during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings.
Hatch's prospects were a big unknown. There is general affection for him from his Senate colleagues but also questions about his loyalty to the administration because of his gentle treatment of Gonzales. The Utah Republican was the lone member of his party on the Senate Judiciary Committee not to openly deride the embattled attorney general.
Gonzales spent the day after his resignation announcement in New Orleans attending the opening of a family justice center where victims of domestic violence can seek legal help and access to social services. In an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune published Tuesday, Gonzales said he should have been better prepared for the role politics play in Washington.
"It's very political, and that's the nature of it," Gonzales was quoted as saying. "And all of us who come to work in these positions, we understand that. And people who don't think politics drives a lot of what happens here are naive. ... And maybe I was naive in terms of how government should work."