Bush nears decision on Gonzales replacement aides

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WASHINGTON, Sep 12 (Reuters) Former US Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who has defended the administration's policies in the war on terrorism, has emerged as a top contender to replace Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, congressional and administration officials said.

President George W Bush is expected to nominate a successor to Gonzales as the nation's top law enforcement officer soon, although a White House official said it was unlikely an announcement would come this week.

The nomination would have to be confirmed by the Democratic-led US Senate. Selection of Olson, a prominent conservative lawyer who represented Bush in the court fight over the 2000 presidential election, could trigger a confirmation battle with Democrats who helped pressure Gonzales to resign, a move that is effective next Monday.

''I think anybody (Bush picks) is going to be given a tough time,'' said Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah yesterday, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that would hold the confirmation hearing.

Hatch said Democrats have indicated they would be open to few potential nominees, as he hailed Olson as a top-flight lawyer who is widely regarded as one of the top US Supreme Court litigators in the United States and said, ''I think they (the administration) would like to have Olson.'' Some Democrats, however, may see Olson as overly partisan and argue that after Gonzales' stormy tenure the Justice Department needs to become less political.

Bush has considered a number of potential nominees, Republican aides said, including federal appeals Judge Laurence Silberman and former Deputy Attorneys General George Terwilliger III and Larry Thompson.

LEADING CONTENDER They said Olson had emerged as a leading contender, though they said they did not know who Bush would ultimately pick.

Olson was confirmed by the Senate in 2001 as U.S. solicitor general on a largely party-line vote of 51-47. Democrats had accused him of underplaying his role in a multimillion-dollar conservative effort to dig up scandals to undermine Democrat Bill Clinton when he was president.

As solicitor general, the administration's chief advocate before the Supreme Court, from 2001 to 2004, Olson played a key role in defending the administration's legal strategy in the war on terrorism.

Olson's then-wife, Barbara, was killed on September 11, 2001.

She was one of the passengers on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Olson remarried last year.

One aide said Thompson advised the White House he was not interested in replacing Gonzales, the nation's first Hispanic attorney general. If Thompson was confirmed for the job, he would be the first black attorney general.

''I think Thompson would be the easiest one to confirm. I think Olson would face a fight,'' a Republican aide said.

Reuters TB VP0620

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