Speculation begins on potential Gonzales successor

Intense media speculation following the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has resulted in a lengthy list of possible nominees to replace him, including several senior officials who already are serving or have served in the Bush administration.

Among the most-mentioned potential nominees is Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. He has served as DHS secretary since February 2005, but has extensive legal experience. Prior to joining DHS, Chertoff was a U.S. circuit judge for the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals and as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's criminal division. He also has extensive experience as a federal prosecutor and in private practice.

The Associated Press reported that the White House had tapped Frances Townsend, adviser to the president for homeland security, to replace Chertoff as DHS secretary, but Townsend had declined to be considered for the post.

Townsend herself has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Gonzales. She worked for the Justice Department for 13 years before leaving to become assistant commandant for intelligence at the Coast Guard and eventually joining the White House staff.

CNN reported early Monday morning that administration sources said Chertoff would get the Justice nomination and would be replaced by Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. OMB spokeswoman Andrea Wuebker firmly denied that report, however, saying, "Clay Johnson is not replacing Secretary Chertoff."

Despite Chertoff's legal experience and previous confirmation to serve in the Bush administration, a confirmation to attorney general would be no slam-dunk. If nominated, Chertoff likely would face a series of questions related to his role in the response to Hurricane Katrina. He also could face questioning about his service as special counsel to a special Senate Whitewater investigation panel, which looked into investments made by former president Bill Clinton and his wife, presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

A DHS spokeswoman declined to comment on the attorney general nomination process. The White House did not return calls for comment.

In a press conference, Sen. Arlen Spector, R-Pa., ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said, "I think [Chertoff] is a first-rate prospect, he's very, very able…. I'd be prepared to give him an A rating."

Erica Chabot, a spokeswoman for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the discussion of Gonzales' replacement is a "conversation for another day" and Leahy and other senior members of the committee have not spoken yet with the White House about possible nominees.

Besides Chertoff, other potential nominees include: former deputy attorneys general Larry Thompson and James Comey; former solicitor general Theodore Olson; current Securities and Exchange Commission chairman and former member of Congress Christopher Cox; Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; and former senator and current Heritage Foundation fellow James Talent.

Thompson, currently a Brookings Institute senior fellow and senior vice president and general counsel at PepsiCo, has repeatedly been named as a potential nominee, both for attorney general and for a slot on the Supreme Court. It was widely speculated that Thompson would be named attorney general when John Ashcroft retired, but Gonzales won the nomination instead.

Comey made headlines recently by testifying before both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees and contradicting testimony given by Gonzales. Comey spoke positively of the attorneys whose firings generated controversy and calls for Gonzales' resignation. He also detailed a visit by Gonzales and then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card to the hospital bedside of Ashcroft, saying the two men were there to try to convince him to reauthorize a secret wiretapping program. Gonzales had previously testified that the hospital visit was not related to the surveillance program.

The White House did not respond to inquiries about a time frame for nominating Gonzales' replacement. Solicitor General Paul Clement will serve as acting attorney general until a nominee is found and confirmed by the Senate.

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