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Bush may tap black attorney general, Latino justice

GOP insiders cite several candidates

WASHINGTON -- In the wake of President Bush's reelection, the nation could soon have its first black attorney general and its first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court, according to Republican insiders with ties to the Justice Department and the White House.

Several of the insiders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said yesterday that Attorney General John D. Ashcroft apparently has told Bush that he wants to step aside in the president's second term.

Their overwhelming consensus is that Ashcroft's former deputy attorney general, Larry D. Thompson, can have the job if he is willing to walk away from a position as a senior vice president at PepsiCo. Thompson, a former US attorney in Atlanta, would become the first African-American attorney general, if nominated by Bush and confirmed by the Senate.

Several people said Thompson is a well-liked, respected consensus-builder in a city of big egos. Although he is a close friend of conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, Thompson has kept a lower profile on social issues and probably would not be the political lightning rod that Ashcroft has been.

"Larry is the one that kept the trains running after 9/11," said Pat Woodward, a former federal prosecutor who left the department in early 2001. "Traditionally, the deputy AG has been the chief operating officer of the Department of Justice. He did a great job of that."

Thompson, in a statement, said he was "fully engaged and committed" to the senior executive position he took last summer with PepsiCo in Purchase, N.Y. According to the Los Angeles Times, the statement by the company did not say Thompson would reject an offer to become the nation's top law enforcement official, if he was asked.

Neither PepsiCo nor Thompson would elaborate.

Thompson also been mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee, but many said Bush will move first to put the first Hispanic on the court, suggesting that White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, would be his choice.

Gonzales is mistrusted by some liberals for writing a legal memo signing off on withholding Geneva Conventions protections to detainees in the war on terrorism, but many said his chances are good because he is well liked by Bush and because Democrats may fear trying to block the first Hispanic nominee.

Social conservatives, however, favor J. Harvie Wilkinson and J. Michael Luttig, staunch conservatives on the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, based in Richmond. Many of Luttig's former clerks went on to work for Thomas and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and constitute an influential network.

"Luttig would be a very good, solid choice, but I don't think he's in the mix if it's just one," said David Rivkin, who was associate White House counsel for George H. W. Bush, the president's father. "If it's just one, I think the president would like to do something more historic and more interesting. If there are two vacancies, I think there's a good chance it's likely to be him and Gonzales."

But the excitement among conservative insiders was tempered by their anger at Senator Arlen Specter, the moderate Pennsylvania Republican who is in line to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee next year and will wield enormous influence over nominations to fill judicial vacancies such as the one likely to be opened by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is battling cancer.

The Associated Press quoted Specter as advising Bush not to put forth Supreme Court nominees who would overturn abortion rights and who are otherwise too conservative to win confirmation. Yesterday, as social conservatives plotted ways to keep him from the Judiciary chairmanship, Specter backed off.

"Contrary to press accounts, I did not warn the president about anything and was very respectful of his constitutional authority on the appointment of federal judges," Specter said in a statement.

If Rehnquist retires because of his health, conservatives said, Bush also may seek to elevate Thomas or Scalia to chief justice in order to nominate someone with less judicial experience, such as Gonzales, to an associate judgeship.

Sean Rushton, director of the conservative Committee for Justice, predicted a "kabuki theater" fight would erupt over Rehnquist's replacement but said the real battle would wait until a moderate or liberal seat opened, such as that held by Justice John Paul Stevens, 84, raising the possibility of altering the outcome of close decisions.

Nan Aron of the liberal Alliance for Justice said the left is ready to fight any hard-right nominations. Because the attorney general evaluates judicial nominations, Aron added, she hoped that Ashcroft's replacement would be a moderate.

If Thompson declines the attorney general spot, insiders said, the short list also includes Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor who served as chairman of Bush's campaign committee; C. Boyden Gray, the senior White House counsel to Bush's father; former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating; and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Giuliani and Keating are also possible replacements for Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who is said to have sent signals that he is ready to move on. Both grew in stature for their handling of terrorism -- Giuliani after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Keating after the Oklahoma City bombing.

Giuliani would have to give up lucrative work in the private sector to take the post. But Giuliani has been laying the groundwork for a possible presidential bid in 2008 and needs to raise his profile.

Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson is also a strong candidate to replace Ridge, several GOP insiders said. 

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