WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) has nominated White House counsel Alberto Gonzales (search) to be the next attorney general. Gonzales, who would become the nation's first Hispanic attorney general if confirmed by the Senate, would replace John Ashcroft (search).
"I am pleased to announce my nomination of Judge Al Gonzales to be the attorney general of the United States," Bush told reporters Wednesday in a Roosevelt Room announcement. "His sharp intellect and sound judgment have helped shape our policies on the War on Terror, policies designed to protect the security of all Americans while protecting the rights of all Americans.
"My confidence in Al was high to begin with. It has only grown with time," Bush said, adding that the counsel has been a "calm and steady voice in times of crisis."
Ashcroft and Commerce Secretary Don Evans (search) formally resigned from office on Tuesday, handing in letters that suggested Bush will have a prosperous second term but that they are too tired to continue with him. Gonzales said he would work to build on Ashcroft's record.
"I know that some government positions require a special level of trust and integrity. The American people expect and deserve a Department of Justice guided by the rule of law, and there should be no question regarding the department's commitment to justice for every American. On this principle, there can be no compromise," Gonzales said.
Democrats have said that Ashcroft was a "divisive" character who was willing to subvert civil liberties in the name of law enforcement. They said now is the time for Bush to try to heal divisions with Democrats, and early after his nomination, some Democrats sounded willing to give Gonzales a chance.
"It's encouraging that the president has chosen someone less polarizing. We will have to review his record very carefully but I can tell you already he's a better candidate than John Ashcroft," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Judiciary Committee, which will be holding confirmation hearings on the nominee.
But it is still uncertain whether Gonzales, 49, will draw any affection from Democrats. He is expected to face the same criticism as Ashcroft for trying to develop a balance between civil liberties and waging the War on Terror.
Gonzales has been at the forefront of developing White House policy about detaining terror suspects for extended periods without access to lawyers or courts. He wrote the February 2002 memo that allowed Bush to claim the right to waive international treaties and anti-torture rules when it comes to prisoners of war who do not serve other countries. Human rights groups criticized the memo, which they said gave way for abuses like that in the Abu Ghraib (search) prison scandal.
"He has to have the confidence of the country and there's a lot of questions he needs to answer as far as I am concerned before he has my support. But those are legitimate questions that are a part of the confirmation process," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told FOX News. "I think he's going to make it ... the question I thought is whether I am going to support him and that's going to depend on whether or not he can satisfy me as one senator that he will be objective, that he will be fair, that he will defend the law of the land that is the Constitution."
"I'm concerned about aspects of his record as White House counsel that raise doubts about his commitment to the rule of law," said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
Gonzales may also face questions from conservatives about his core social beliefs. As attorney general, Gonzales would be responsible for elucidating U.S. policies on such issues as abortion and assisted suicide, among others. Earlier, conservatives had been concerned that Gonzales would be nominated as a Supreme Court justice when a vacancy opens up, which is very possible now that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search) is facing treatment for thyroid cancer. His diversion to the Justice Department quells rumors that Gonzales would be the president's first choice for the court.
Outgoing Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a hero in conservative circles, called Gonzales a "great personal friend" and an "excellent choice" for attorney general.
"His legal, military, government and professional experience has proven to be a great asset to our country during very trying times. I am confident that he will be promptly confirmed and make a superb attorney general," Hatch said in a statement.
Still, some administration officials say that the choice of Gonzales is a "concern" to them because the Justice Department should have some independence from the White House, and Gonzales is "weak" and "controlled" by the White House.
They also point out that individuals at the White House are being questioned in the grand jury probe over the leak of CIA employee Valerie Plame's (search) name. They question the propriety of having someone from the White House head the Justice Department when the Justice Department is responsible for a probe that is looking into whether someone at the White House committed any wrongdoing.
Gonzales has a strong supporter in the president, who appointed the Texas native to be his general counsel when Bush was governor of Texas. Gonzales also served as secretary of state and a justice on the Texas Supreme Court. Gonzales, who received his law degree from Harvard and graduated from Rice University, was a partner in a Houston law firm that represented energy giant Enron Corp. (search), which has been in the center of Justice Department efforts to clean up corporate fraud.
"He will insure that Americans are protected from discrimination so that each person has the opportunity to live the American dream, as Al himself has done," Bush said. "I'm committed to strong, principled leadership at the Department of Justice. And Judge Al Gonzales will be that kind of leader, as America's 80th attorney general."
Gonzales' name emerged in the front of the pack early after word floated last week that Ashcroft was planning on leaving the department. In fact, the attorney general handed in his five-page, handwritten resignation to the president on Election Day.
In it, Ashcroft said he had never been more honored than to work for the president, but his time to retire had come.
"The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved. The rule of law has been strengthened and upheld in the courts. Yet, I believe that the Department of Justice would be well served by new leadership and fresh inspiration," Ashcroft wrote in the letter he scripted himself, aides said, to prevent any leaks.
Ashcroft, 62, has signaled for months his desire to leave, aides said. They said he has accomplished everything he set out to do. They add that Ashcroft recognized that if he is going to leave, it's best to leave while on top, and the attorney general has said he made positive changes to the Justice Department and the country. Ashcroft said that he will stay on in his role until his successor is confirmed.
While nominating Gonzales, Bush thanked Ashcroft for his service, citing a record that he said includes reducing violent crime and drug use among students as well as increasing prosecutions of child pornographers and escalating confidence in financial markets as a result of corporate prosecutions.
"Attorney General Ashcroft has served with excellence during a demanding time. In four years, he's reorganized the Department of Justice to meet the new threat of terrorism. He has fairly and forcefully applied the Patriot Act and helped to dismantle terrorist cells inside the United States," Bush said. "The nation is safer and more just today, because John Ashcroft has served our country so well."
Ashcroft and Evans, who have headed their respective departments since the start of the Bush administration, are the first members of the Cabinet to leave as the president considers the shape of his second term. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to meet with Bush on Wednesday to discuss his role. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is said to want to continue at least until Iraq is more stable.
Treasury Secretary John Snow is also expected to stay on, as he will be critical to developing tax code reform recommendations that the president has said he is interested in hearing. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card is also staying on.
Meanwhile, three high-ranking Bush administration officials have said they would like to remain on the job. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Leavitt all said they want to continue.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and Anna Persky and The Associated Press contributed to this report.