WASHINGTON — Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales has few fans these days among the power elite in the nation's capital, especially since his underwhelming appearance before a Senate panel last week. But he has at least one enthusiast left -- the only one who really counts.
"The attorney general went up [to Capitol Hill] and gave a very candid assessment, and answered every question he could possibly answer, honestly answer, in a way that increased my confidence in his ability to do the job," President Bush said Monday, in his first public comments since Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
Many Republicans and Democrats have expressed amazement -- sometimes in public, sometimes in private -- that Gonzales has kept his job despite the drumbeat of accusations and criticisms over his handling of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
In his testimony on Capitol Hill, Gonzales pleaded memory lapses in failing to answer dozens of questions about the dismissals, opening himself up to new charges of ineptitude.
Gonzales conceded, as he had previously, that he and his staff made mistakes in the way the firings were handled.
But he continued to insist that he had limited knowledge of each case -- having left the specifics to aides -- and that he did nothing improper.
He firmly rejected suggestions from Democrats that political considerations played a role in terminating the federal prosecutors, who serve at the pleasure of the president.
Bush is the first major public figure to suggest Gonzales' performance was impressive, stressing that, in his eyes, it "increased" the attorney general's standing.
"It was clear that the attorney general broke no law, did no wrongdoing," the president said Monday during an Oval Office meeting with the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus. "Some senators didn't like his explanation, but he answered as honestly as he could. This is an honest, honorable man, in whom I have confidence."
Gonzales, who served Bush as an aide when the president was governor of Texas, reiterated Monday that he plans to stay on the job.
He was peppered with questions about his tenure at a Washington news conference on identity theft.
"I am intent on working with the Congress and reassuring the Congress that we are identifying what happened here," Gonzales said. "We will correct what mistakes have been made.... I have accepted responsibility."
Gonzales declined to say whether he intends to remain as the nation's top law enforcement official until Bush's term ends in January 2009.
"As long as I think that I can be effective and the president believes that I should continue to be at the head of the Department of Justice, I'll continue serving as the attorney general," he said.
In an administration that prizes fidelity, Gonzales is known as among the most loyal of the loyal. That may be a key reason Bush is backing him so strongly when his support elsewhere has ebbed.
"The president has fewer and fewer friends in this town, and Gonzales is one of them," said Thomas E. Mann, who studies Congress and the presidency at the Brookings Institution think tank.
Mann also said Bush is famously reluctant to admit mistakes, and nudging Gonzales toward the door would effectively be an admission of error.
"It would go to one of the fundamental critiques of the Bush administration -- that their long-term political ambitions were so great that it led to more than the normal politicization of the process of government," Mann said.
Stanley N. Katz, a legal historian at Princeton University, said Bush may be worried that if critics got Gonzales' scalp, they would go after more -- particularly, chief White House political advisor Karl Rove.
"If [critics] keep firing at a dead man, various other people are probably going to survive," Katz said. "I think they must be worried about blood lust ... [that] Rove will be next."
Some familiar with the workings of the Justice Department say they expect morale there -- already shaken by the firings -- to continue to erode as long as Gonzales keeps his job.
"Gonzales may find it hard to keep the respect and support of the U.S. attorneys, whose colleagues he hired and fired with such insouciance," said Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor in New York who teaches at Fordham University School of Law.
But others said Gonzales may be able to repair his credibility.
They said his attempts to steer the debate away from the firings and back onto law enforcement could be helpful to him and the department.
"It is to the advantage of the department that the president has made it very clear, very quickly, that Gonzales has his full support, and that will help move the debate away from the U.S. attorney issues and on to the priorities of the department," said Tom Heffelfinger, the former U.S. attorney for Minnesota who resigned last year.
Besides, Heffelfinger said, "Replacing him would be a long process and not without its own disruption."
At this point, congressional insiders say, the critical element for Gonzales is whether revelations continue in the controversy.
"The steam is coming out of the balloon," said a senior Republican leadership aide who requested anonymity when providing his assessment of the mood on Capitol Hill.
"There haven't been people going to the mat for him, but few are saying he should go, at least for now," the aide said.
But Democrats appeared unwilling to let the issue go and said they expected that new questions and criticisms would arise as they pursued inquiries into the firings.
"I imagine the president didn't watch any of the attorney general's testimony Thursday," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, a leading Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It is obvious that the White House is in a bunker mentality. But we are going to pursue this."