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Democrats content to let Gonzales twist in wind

Times Staff Writers

Democrats are not winning the battle to force Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales from office, stymied by a legal system that gives the Bush administration wide discretion to block investigations of itself. And they are not getting the White House witnesses or records they have demanded in recent weeks.

But many Democrats are fine with that.

Although they may prove fruitless, the Democrats’ investigative efforts may help keep President Bush and his administration the center of attention in next year’s elections, even as the Republican Party chooses a new standard-bearer and tries to move on.

With Congress beginning a monthlong summer recess last weekend -- and with Gonzales still entrenched at the Justice Department -- the focus is turning to the candidates and their opinions of Gonzales’ tenure. Lawmakers also will hear what constituents make of the attorney general’s performance.

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Even if Gonzales survives until Bush leaves office, strategists hope his continued presence damages GOP candidates across the country.

“This becomes a piece of the race,” said David E. Bonior, a former Michigan congressman who is managing Democrat John Edwards’ presidential campaign. By highlighting Bush’s allegiance to Gonzales, Democrats hope to make a point about how a Democratic administration would be different, drawing “the contrast of what we have and what we could have,” Bonior said.

Gonzales has come under fire for his shifting explanations about his role in the politically charged firing last year of eight U.S. attorneys, and for his testimony about an electronic surveillance program that Bush launched after the 9/11 attacks. In that case, his statements have appeared to contradict testimony from the FBI director.

Democrats are already eyeing potential gains from the controversy in at least one battleground state, New Mexico, home to one of the U.S. attorneys whose firings sparked the congressional inquiries.

The party recently aired a radio ad linking a vulnerable Republican congresswoman there, Heather A. Wilson, to the controversy.

And one of the sponsors of a new resolution pushing for Gonzales’ impeachment, Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), is considering a run for the seat held by Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici, who Democrats have said helped engineer the prosecutor’s firing.

In the Democratic presidential primary, the Edwards camp has seized on the controversy most directly, distributing a fundraising appeal last week describing the attorney general as “the man who helped enable torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and illegal spying on Americans.” The e-mail also sought 25,000 names for an anti-Gonzales petition, to be delivered to his office with an oversize copy of the Constitution.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats are growing more aggressive.

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Four senators recently called for a special prosecutor to investigate Gonzales for possible perjury in his testimony before Congress on the fired U.S. attorneys and on Bush’s post-9/11 electronic surveillance program.

The House Judiciary Committee has recommended that the Justice Department bring contempt charges against two senior White House aides -- former counsel Harriet E. Miers and current chief of staff Joshua B. Bolten -- who have refused to testify or produce documents about the prosecutors’ firings. Democrats say they want to find out who ordered the firings and why.

Karl Rove, the president’s top political advisor, last week refused to honor a subpoena to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about his involvement in the firings.

But even left-leaning scholars say the Democrats are unlikely to succeed on the legal front.

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For instance, the Justice Department already has put Congress on notice that it won’t bring charges if the full House asks the department to prosecute Miers and Bolten for contempt. Legal experts say the federal law making contempt of Congress a crime is unenforceable against executive branch officials who, at the behest of the president, invoke executive privilege in refusing to testify.

The House is considering bringing a civil action in federal court against the officials, but legal experts believe that a court would not entertain such a suit without a specific statute authorizing it.

A third option involves a proceeding known as inherent contempt, in which the House would hold a mini-trial along the lines of an impeachment. The last time that was tried: 1935.

Administration officials have shown no signs of backing down in their defense of Gonzales, a longtime friend of Bush and a fellow Texan.

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White House spokesman Tony Snow last week dismissed the Democrats’ intensifying assaults as a “race to be most toxic” and “designed to turn up the temperature rather than to turn on the light.”

Vice President Dick Cheney, on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” accused Democrats of conducting “a bit of a witch hunt on Capitol Hill, as they keep rolling over rocks hoping they can find something.”

But Democrats say the controversy plays directly into their hands as they attempt to frame 2008, like their takeover of Congress last year, as a “change election.”

That was the thrust of talking points distributed recently to House members by Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The memo did not directly address the U.S. attorneys’ episode or Gonzales. But it argued repeatedly that next year’s campaigns “must be about change and accountability.”

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“As we show Americans that we are bringing accountability back to government, the public’s confidence in us will continue to grow, as will the chorus of leading conservative voices such as William F. Buckley and Bob Novak saying that Republicans are headed for electoral disaster in 2008,” Van Hollen wrote, invoking two well-known conservative columnists.

When voters go to the polls next year, Democrats want them to be thinking about Bush, even though he won’t be on the ballot.

Jim Jordan, an advisor to the presidential campaign of Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), said the historic correlation is “almost absolute” between the ratings of an outgoing president and the ability of his party’s next presidential nominee to win the general election.

The Democrats’ increasing aggressiveness against Gonzales, he said, is “part of building and maintaining the broader political atmosphere.”

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Times staff writer Claudia Lauer contributed to this report.

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

richard.schmitt@latimes.com

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The next debate

Democratic contenders will attend the AFL-CIO Presidential Candidates Forum at Soldier Field in Chicago today. The event will be broadcast from 4 to 5:30 p.m. PDT on MSNBC.


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