Clinton-Era Figure a Top Contender for AG

Washington lawyer Eric Holder has emerged as the top contender for the attorney general post in Barack Obama's administration, and key Senate staff members are fielding questions about how a potential Holder confirmation hearing could play out, ABC News has learned.

If nominated by Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Holder, 57, would be the first African-American attorney general. President-elect Obama has made it clear that Holder is his choice to run the Justice Department, transition team officials say, and staff members have been reviewing Holder's background before he receives an official offer.

He served as the first black deputy attorney general, working under then-Attorney General Janet Reno during the Clinton administration.

While at the Justice Department, Holder was viewed as a centrist on most law enforcement issues, though he has sharply criticized the secrecy and the expansive views of executive power advanced by the Bush Justice Department.

But Holder could face some obstacles because of a controversial Clinton pardon and the Elian Gonzalez saga.

Holder faced criticism for not speaking up before Clinton's pardon of financier Marc Rich, who fled the United States after his indictment for tax evasion and tax fraud. Clinton critics claimed that campaign donations from Rich's ex-wife Denise could have influenced the decision.

Additionally, Holder was serving as deputy attorney general during the Elian Gonzalez debacle. Federal agents raided the Miami home of the 6-year-old boy's family as part of an operation to take him into custody and return him to his father in Cuba.

But sources told ABC News that signs favor Holder being confirmed.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, praised Holder in a statement released today after reports surfaced that Obama was seriously considering him.

"I have known Eric Holder for many years," Leahy said in the statement. "He has served as a prosecutor, judge and high ranking law enforcement official. He would make an outstanding nominee, and should have the support of Senators from both sides of the aisle if President-elect Obama were to choose him for this critical position."

Currently a partner at law firm Covington & Burling in Washington, Holder has also served as a federal judge, appointed by President Reagan, and he later became the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, nominated by President Clinton. He left that post to take the deputy spot at the Justice Department.

Earlier this year, Holder headed Obama's vice presidential search committee with Caroline Kennedy.

Although Holder has emerged as a front-runner for the attorney general spot, with Newsweek reporting that he has accepted the post pending a formal vetting process, the Obama transition team denied that report, saying that as of now, no job has been offered or accepted.

Legal sources also indicated to ABC News that others, including Gov. Janet Napolitano, D-Ariz., are in the running for the spot as the nation's top lawyer.

The man or woman who takes the spot as the nation's top lawyer will be saddled with many challenges, ranging from counterterrorism policies to a tide of financial investigations.

After the Alberto Gonzales era shook the department and demoralized staff across the country, righting the Justice Department will be no easy task.

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