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A more moderate voice as AG

But nominee has terror-war baggage.

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One of the most important things to remember about Attorney General-designate Alberto Gonzales is obvious: He's not John Ashcroft.

A moderate conservative with a mild demeanor, White House counsel Gonzales - unlike Ashcroft - isn't a polarizing figure in Washington. He'll draw some tough questions from Senate Democrats, but he's likely to be easily confirmed.

President Bush, for his part, may point to the prospective promotion of Gonzales, a Hispanic, as evidence of commitment to cabinet diversity.

And the religious right might simply be relieved that someone they suspect is insufficiently conservative is headed to the Justice Department, not the Supreme Court.

"From Bush's position, it's a win-win situation," says Sheldon Goldman, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

This doesn't mean that Mr. Gonzales'spath to confirmation will be all rose petals and encomiums. As the top lawyer in the White House, he is closely associated with some of the most controversial legal aspects of the US war on terrorism.

Specifically, Gonzales wrote a draft memo on the treatment of prisoners that called some of the Geneva Convention provisions on prisoner treatment "quaint." His office also played a role in the formulation of a 2002 Justice Department memo that concluded torture of suspected terrorists might be legal under some circumstances. He has played down the importance of these pieces of paper. He has said that the Justice Department memo was irrelevant to the eventual guidance given US military commanders, for instance.

But critics charge that he was a crucial part of a legal team that created an atmosphere in which the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib became possible.

"Gonzalez is a lot more culpable on these anti-civil rights policies than his personality would lead you to believe," says Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office.

Unlike the man he would replace, Gonzales is not a career politician. Where Mr. Ashcroft was something of an independent operator, with his own power base in the religious right, Gonzales owes his entry into the circle of national power to one man: George Bush.

His confirmation as attorney general would thus place a trusted confidant of the president at the center of US law enforcement power. That's a model used by John F. Kennedy, whose younger brother Robert served as a sort of chief enforcer of administration policy when he headed Justice, as well as Ronald Reagan, who installed old California friend Ed Meese as attorney general as one of his first personnel acts.


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