Story Highlights• President's dilemma: fire a friend or risk more political damage
• Gonzales has been a Bush confidant and friend for more than a decade
• But Bush's popularity is low, and some in GOP fear Gonzales is a liability
• Bush faced a similar dilemma when he picked Harriet Miers for Supreme Court
From Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In the midst of a mushrooming controversy over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, the question of whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales can hang on to his job is now front and center in Washington -- creating a possibly thorny dilemma for his boss, President Bush.
Gonzales, 51, has been a Bush confidant and friend for more than a decade, and the president is nothing if not famously loyal. But with at least a dozen senators clamoring for Gonzales to go, how long will Bush be able -- politically -- to defend his embattled attorney general?
"What we're talking about is a person who has become a liability to the president, but the president cares about him deeply," said Stephen Hess, a political scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "So that's the equation -- do you throw him overboard?"
Bush faced a similar dilemma in October 2005, when he nominated another member of his inner circle, White House Counsel Harriet Miers, to a seat on the Supreme Court.
In that instance, Miers' nomination was pulled after political support crumbled amid questions about her credentials and a dispute over whether senators should have access to internal documents she penned while working in the White House. However, Bush made it clear he was unhappy about the way Miers had been treated and kept her on as counsel.
The association between Gonzales and Bush goes back to their home state of Texas. After Bush was elected governor in 1994, Gonzales, a Harvard-educated Houston lawyer whose grandparents were Mexican immigrants, became his general counsel.
With Bush as his patron, Gonzales' career took an upward trajectory.
In 1997, Bush appointed him Texas secretary of state, and in 1999 to the state Supreme Court. After Bush became president in 2001, Gonzales left his seat on the Texas high court to come to Washington to be White House counsel. After Bush was re-elected in 2004, he appointed Gonzales as attorney general.
If Bush's job approval ratings were high, their long association might be enough to save his job. But the president's popularity is at a low point, and the potential political liability of keeping Gonzales around is making some Republicans nervous.
"Many Republican senators have expressed these concerns on the record," said Sen. John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican who faces a tough re-election battle in 2008 and has called for Gonzales to go. "Quite frankly, there are a lot of others that talk very frankly in private conversations."
Many in the GOP have bad memories of the 2006 midterm election, when then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld became a juicy target for Democrats. Bush stuck with Rumsfeld through Election Day, which saw Democrats take both houses of Congress, only to replace Rumsfeld the next day, after the damage had been done.
The shift in power in Congress now gives Democrats subpoena power -- which they appear ready to use to find out if the firings of the U.S. attorneys were the result of improper political influence or if Justice Department officials tried to deliberately mislead Congress about what happened.
Whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales keeps his job will depend on whether President Bush is willing to take the political heat.
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