Gonzales' Departure Sets up Confirmation Battle

The resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales robs Democrats of a favorite political punching bag, a singular and potent symbol that Democrats have used to blast the Bush administration for cronyism, incompetence and scandal.

With Karl Rove's near-simultaneous exit from the political scene, it's as if the White House is shedding its political baggage for President Bush's final 17 months in office — at the very time that the 2008 presidential race is starting to subsume the nation's political activities.

But if the White House is hoping for smoother sailing by clearing its roster of controversial figures, Democrats in Congress and the presidential race are giving no indication that they plan to let up.

Confirmation Battle Looms

Gonzales' departure sets up what's likely to be the first big confirmation battle since Democrats took over control of Congress in January.

That guarantees more scrutiny of a range of issues and topics many Republicans would rather not discuss — including Guantanamo Bay, warrantless wiretaps and political hirings and firings at the Department of Justice.

"Al Gonzales and Karl Rove will continue to be a source of red meat for the base," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic political consultant. "And you have to assume that anyone they nominate for attorney general is going to serve as a punching bag in the primary, and moving forward to the general election."

The scrutiny would be particularly intense if Bush taps Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to head the Justice Department — a move that would set up two confirmation hearings for Cabinet posts, in a time period that roughly coincides with the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

"If he picks Chertoff, he can expect controversy," former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said on CNN today. "I don't think we should take the person who's responsible for Guantanamo and replace him with the person who [oversaw the government response] to Katrina."

Gonzales Forced Bush's Hand

Gonzales is clearly not leaving his post on his own terms.

His support in Congress has utterly collapsed, with some Republicans joining Democrats in urging the president to replace him after a series of contradictory appearances before congressional panels.

Several Democratic presidential candidates have made calls for Gonzales' dismissal part of their stump speeches, just as Democrats did when John Ashcroft held the same job during the 2004 campaign.

Within minutes of Gonzales' announcement, congressional Democrats served notice that they wouldn't drop their multiple investigations of Gonzales' Justice Department.

"He lacked independence, he lacked judgment and he lacked the spine to say no to Karl Rove," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "This resignation is not the end of the story. Congress must get to the bottom of this mess and follow the facts where they lead, into the White House."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she'll be looking for Gonzales' successor to have a more open stance toward Congress' role in overseeing Justice Department activities.

"The nominee must also pledge to cooperate with ongoing congressional oversight into the conduct of the White House in the politicization of federal law enforcement," Pelosi said.

Similar reactions reverberated across the 2008 race. Edwards offered a terse statement: "Better late than never." Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., also welcomed the departure, saying that Gonzales "subverted justice to promote a political agenda."

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, noted that he voted against Gonzales' nomination in 2005 — and strongly hinted that his successor will have to be someone from outside the president's immediate political orbit.

"My skepticism was confirmed by his conduct and his failure to put protecting the American people over protecting the president," Biden said. "The next attorney general should not make the same mistake."

And it only took a few hours for the first Democrat to send a fundraising appeal based on Gonzales' ouster.

Edwards adviser Joe Trippi sent an e-mail message to supporters this afternoon — with the subject line, "Crony out, Crony in" — asking for donations to prevent Chertoff's nomination.

"As pleased as we are to see Gonzales go, the fight is far from over," Trippi writes. "We need your support in this fight — just like we needed your support in the fight against Gonzales."

Republicans Relieved

Even Republicans seemed relieved that Gonzales is leaving the scene.

Former Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., both said they were pleased to see Gonzales go.

Former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who has generally had kind words for Gonzales, called his resignation the "right decision."

"The resignation is an opportunity for President Bush to renew the nation's commitment to the law enforcement officers and personnel who are dedicated to enforcing the rule of law and protecting the American people from the threat of terrorism around the globe," Romney said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was one of only a handful of Republicans to mark Gonzales' decision with regret.

"I hope that history will remember Attorney General Gonzales for his honorable service to his country," Hatch said in a statement delivered on paper rather than television due to pre-planned dental work, "rather than for the absurd political theater to which some critics have subjected him."

And although Hatch has long been one of Gonzales' fierce, if not lone, defenders on Capitol Hill, he's also a potential candidate for the attorney general's job.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., a longtime colleague of Hatch and critic of Gonzales, fueled the Hatch rumor further when he told reporters on a conference call that a "former senator might be just the ticket."

"A former senator or a present senator might be well known to the [Judiciary] Committee," Specter said. "You might have confidence in the person's ability."

ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf asked Hatch spokeswoman Heather Barney to knock down the rumors.

"The main thing [Sen. Hatch] said to me was there are some qualified candidates he knows they will be looking at that he does support," Barney said. "He did not say who those candidates were."

"Is he one of those candidates he was talking about?" she was asked by ABC News.

"No," she replied.