WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday nominated his White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, to become the nation's attorney general, choosing a man who has drawn both praise and ire for his role in developing the nation's legal response to terrorism.
Warmly referring to his longtime friend as ''Al," Bush lauded Gonzales's ''sharp intellect and sound judgment" and credited him with helping the administration develop policies in the war on terror.
''I'm committed to strong, principled leadership at the Department of Justice, and Judge Al Gonzales will be that kind of leader," the president said. ''As a steward of civil rights laws, he will ensure that Americans are protected from discrimination so that each person has the opportunity to live the American dream, as Al himself has done."
The appointment, which is subject to Senate confirmation, seemed to reflect the administration's desire to maintain an aggressive approach to law enforcement, particularly in going after threats of terrorism, an approach that made John Ashcroft, who is leaving as attorney general, a frequent target of criticism by civil libertarians.
Gonzales, the son of a Texan migrant worker, has long been part of the president's inner circle and was author of a memo in which he called the Geneva Conventions, which protect prisoners of war, ''quaint" and ''obsolete."
Democrats and civil libertarians pledged to conduct a spirited and thorough vetting of Gonzales's record, questioning whether the nominee will protect the rights of the accused. Some said they plan to challenge Gonzales on his opinions about the Geneva Conventions and his expanded use of executive privilege to shield more White House documents than previous administrations.
But the 49-year-old former state judge is widely expected to win approval by the Senate, where Democrats have neither the voting power nor the political capital to defeat a Cabinet appointment.
''We commend Mr. Gonzales on his nomination, but I'm concerned about certain aspects of his record as White House counsel that raise some questions about his commitment to the rule of law," Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview.
The selection of Gonzales appeals to two critical GOP voter groups: Latinos and law enforcement conservatives. Gonzales would be the first Hispanic attorney general, possibly helping Republicans in their quest to garner more support from Latinos, the nation's biggest single minority group.
Some conservatives were also pleased that Bush chose to make Gonzales chief law enforcement officer instead of nominating him to the US Supreme Court, where Gonzales's uncertain record on abortion and other social issues has sparked concern among some conservative groups.
''The office has become one very much focused on terrorism and domestic security. The concerns that we might have expressed a few years ago are not as much in the forefront," said Jayd Henricks, spokesman for the Family Research Council.
Conservatives have expressed criticism of Gonzales's record on the Texas Supreme Court, where he endorsed broad leeway for judges to waive a parental-notification requirement for minors seeking abortions. Some coined the phrase that ''Gonzales is Spanish for David Souter," a Republican Supreme Court appointee many conservatives consider too liberal.
But some of the same critics yesterday gave high marks to Gonzales as a crime fighter, saying he would fiercely oppose terrorism.
Democrats, too, indicated they do not expect to go to war over Gonzales, despite worries about his record. Facing a new Senate where they will be outnumbered 55 to 44, with one Independent, Democrats are saving their political energies for an expected bitter and protracted battle over the next Supreme Court justice.
''There are concerns with respect to his role with the development of [Iraqi prison] Abu Ghraib policies, the treatment of detainees, and concerns about his role with respect to the Bush administration packing the court with right-wing ideologues, " said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way. As White House counsel, Gonzales and his office vetted all of Bush's court nominees.
''Having said all of that, there's a different standard for the Supreme Court than there is for attorney general," a post that is limited to the president's tenure, Neas said.
The hearings instead are expected to serve as a forum for a showdown over Bush administration policies on Iraq, government secrecy, civil liberties, and adherence to international tenets, such as the Geneva Conventions, said aides to Senate Democrats. As the top White House lawyer, Gonzales had a role in all of those issues, they said.
Serving in the generally low-profile job of White House counsel, Gonzales won praise for his legal acumen.
''His legal, military, government, and professional experience has proven to be a great asset to our country during very trying times," said Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah.
But Gonzales also became the target of civil libertarians after a memo of his surfaced that suggested the United States did not need to adhere to the prisoner protections spelled out in the Geneva Conventions when dealing with fighters captured in Afghanistan.
Critics have said that Gonzales's legal advice created a disrespect for international law that fostered maltreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and later abuses of inmates in Abu Ghraib. The Iraqi prisoners were subject to the Geneva Conventions.
''He's provided the Bush administration with the legal arguments to sidestep and ignore the rule of law that, as attorney general, he will be mandated to enforce," said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice.
Gonzales is also expected to be quizzed about the administration's secrecy in the areas of energy-policy development, documents related to judicial nominees, and the detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Republicans applauded the historic appointment of a Latino, which some said could bolster Bush's growing support among Hispanic voters. While Latinos have traditionally voted Democratic, both parties agree that the group is politically up for grabs.
John A. Garcia, a University of Arizona political science professor who specializes in Latino politics, said Gonzales's appointment is an important signal for Bush to send to Hispanic voters after an election in which he persuaded greater numbers of Latino voters to support the Republican presidential ticket than in the past.
The fact that Bush will have Gonzales in a post that deals with so many issues that Hispanics care about, particularly civil rights and civil liberties, gives Republicans an opportunity to build on their support among Hispanics, he said.
The Christian Coalition of America, a group dedicated to furthering conservative values, also noted Gonzales's ethnicity, a signal that the coalition sees Latinos, most of whom are Roman Catholics, as a potential political ally.
In his brief remarks announcing Gonzales's appointment, Bush noted the nominee's upbringing in a two-bedroom house with seven siblings. The president did not mention his Hispanic heritage, but Gonzales did in expressing gratitude to the president.
''Within the Hispanic community, there is a shared hope for an opportunity to succeed," Gonzales said. '' 'Just give me a chance to prove myself' -- that is a common prayer for those in my community. Mr. President, thank you for that chance."