WASHINGTON -- For his first major appointment since reelection, President Bush turned to a close friend, a mild-mannered centrist -- and a candidate who will probably cost him little of the ''political capital" he said he earned at the polls last week.
Alberto R. Gonzales, tapped to be attorney general yesterday, has his critics. As White House counsel over the last four years, he has overseen some of the most controversial legal decisions of the administration, generating opinions about the treatment of terror suspects and executive-branch secrecy that infuriated many advocates of civil liberties and human rights.
Gonzales, a former judge, also helped direct the selection of judges to the federal bench -- a process that led Democrats to block conservative nominees, such as Miguel A. Estrada, during the Senate confirmation process.
Gonzales, 49, a Texan who would become the first Hispanic to lead the Justice Department, is unlikely to face more than a tough grilling from Democrats before he is confirmed, officials on both sides said. And whatever qualms senators may have about him, Gonzales is almost certain to be less polarizing than the outgoing attorney general.
''We will have to review his record very carefully, but I can tell you already he's a better candidate than John Ashcroft," said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, a Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
''I don't think Gonzales will be as much of a lightning rod," said John Yoo, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, who served as a deputy assistant attorney general under Ashcroft until last year. ''Many of the civil liberties groups would have attacked whoever was the attorney general after Sept. 11, given what the government had to do to respond. But because of his background, Ashcroft was maybe more of an inviting target than Judge Gonzales will be."
Still, Democrats do not intend to let Gonzales sail through without tough questioning, several said yesterday. His confirmation hearings are expected to serve as a stage for Democrats to air their frustrations and concerns about the administration as they head into another congressional session out of power.
''These confirmation hearings will be a rare opportunity for the Senate and the public to finally get some answers on several issues for which the administration has resisted accountability, including its use of the Patriot Act, the lack of cooperation with Congress on oversight, and the policies that have been rejected by the courts on the treatment of detainees," Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. ''This also may be the only remaining forum in which to examine more fully the steps that were taken to weaken US policy on torture in the period that led to the prison scandals at Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan."
A Senate Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois will take the lead on questioning Gonzales about torture issues, after his 2002 memo about the treatment of prisoners that described the Geneva Conventions against torture as obsolete. The nature of the fight against terrorism ''renders quaint" some provisions of the Geneva Conventions, Gonzales wrote, such as the rules ''requiring that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges . . . athletic uniforms and scientific instruments."
Senator Edward M. Kennedy is expected to head up questioning over the USA Patriot Act, the signature legislation of Ashcroft's tenure and a major target for civil liberties groups for its provisions expanding powers of the government to investigate.
''I commend Mr. Gonzales on his nomination to be attorney general, but I'm concerned about aspects of his record as White House counsel that raise doubts about his commitment to the rule of law," Kennedy said in a statement yesterday. ''Even Secretary of State Powell objected to Mr. Gonzales's memorandum undermining the Geneva Conventions, which Mr. Gonzales called 'obsolete' and 'quaint.' "
Before Bush was elected, Gonzales was widely rumored to be a top choice for the Supreme Court, if there is an opening, as appears increasingly likely with the illness of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Conservatives grumbled at the suggestion, accusing Gonzales of being far too moderate on social issues, especially after he wrote an opinion on behalf of the Bush administration saying that race should be one of many considerations in college acceptance. Ashcroft and Solicitor General Theodore B. Olsen had fought for a harder line -- that affirmative action is illegal across the board. But Gonzales won, and the Supreme Court ultimately concurred.
Some conservatives expressed relief that he will not be immediately headed toward the Supreme Court. ''I think the fact that Bush has largely kept out of trouble in his first term is a tribute to him, and I think he was appointed on that basis," said Paul Weyrich, head of the conservative Free Congress Foundation. ''I think that does mean, however, he's probably not going on the Supreme Court anytime soon."