WASHINGTON — 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.
Gonzales' personal story is undeniably inspiring. His parents were migrant farm workers in Texas. His father, Pablo, had a second-grade education. His mother Maria made it through the fifth grade. Alberto is the only one of their eight children to even attend a college class.
Born in San Antonio and raised in Houston, the young Gonzales helped support his family by selling soft drinks at Rice University stadium. A good student in high school and a two-sport athlete, he enlisted in the Air Force after graduation. He gained entrance to the Air Force Academy, but decided after two years he was interested in law. He transferred to Rice, and then went to Harvard Law School.
As a lawyer in private practice in Houston, he became the first member of an ethnic minority to make partner at Vinson and Elkins, one of Texas' most prestigious law firms. He was recruited in 1994 by Bush's gubernatorial campaign, and served Governor Bush as general counsel. Bush appointed him to the Texas Supreme Court in 1998. At Gonzales's swearing-in ceremony, Bush wept, and called him "a great friend."
Some of John Ashcroft's harshest critics welcomed Gonzales' nomination, saying he is easy to deal with and at least seems to listen to competing points of view. "It's encouraging the president has chosen someone less polarizing," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York.
Some Hispanic groups were ecstatic about the nomination, seeing it as evidence of their growing political clout. If Gonzales is confirmed, Bush can claim to have appointed the first Hispanic attorney general, as well as the first African-American Secretary of State (Colin Powell), and the first African-American National Security Adviser (Condoleezza Rice).
"This is a great step forward and a terrific achievement," says Roger Rocha, director of the Texas League of United Latin American Citizens.
But some conservatives are suspicious of Gonzales. His judicial record and legal opinions show he may not share their firm antiabortion and antiaffirmative action beliefs. "Conservatives probably would not oppose him becoming attorney general, but there would be grave concern about his becoming a Supreme Court justice," says Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch.
• Kris Axtman in Houston and Gail Russell Chaddock in Washington contributed to this report.