WASHINGTON — Former Justice Department official Eric H. Holder Jr. emerged Tuesday as Barack Obama's leading candidate for attorney general, and the president-elect's transition team was trying to gauge whether there was sufficient bipartisan support for him in the Senate, sources close to the transition confirmed.
Those sources said that the internal vetting process for Holder was still being completed and that top transition team members and Democratic allies of Obama were working to make sure that Holder would not face any significant obstacles during the confirmation process. One source close to the transition team said that Holder had been offered the job conditionally.
A well-regarded prosecutor turned corporate lawyer in private practice, Holder would be the nation's first African American attorney general. He did not respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment, and the Obama team declined to discuss the matter -- except to say that he had neither been offered the job nor accepted it.
Holder, 57, has been a trailblazer through much of his career. He became the first African American to serve as deputy attorney general in 1997, in the Clinton administration, and the first black acting attorney general in the first few weeks of the Bush administration.
He has also been a Superior Court judge in Washington and the top prosecutor in the high-profile U.S. attorney's office in the nation's capital.
In recent years, Holder has been a litigation partner in the Washington office of the law firm Covington & Burling LLP, handling, among other matters, complex civil and criminal cases, domestic and international advisory matters and internal corporate investigations. He also has been an Obama campaign supporter, and was a leader of Obama's vice presidential search committee.
The biggest issue in any confirmation hearing, Holder's supporters and critics said, would be that as deputy attorney general he had failed to oppose a presidential pardon for then-fugitive financier Marc Rich on the last day of the Clinton administration. Rich's former wife, Denise, was a contributor to former President Clinton's presidential library.
On Tuesday, some Democrats on Capitol Hill said the pardon issue might cause Holder trouble, but that his peripheral role in it was far outweighed by his many positive attributes and accomplishments. Holder, they said, enjoys a broad level of support among senior political leaders and law enforcement officials in both parties.
Several Senate Republican leadership aides, however, said that neither they nor their senators had been contacted, and some expressed surprise that Holder would have been chosen without their input.
"Some will have concerns with his involvement in the Marc Rich pardon. It seems to me odd that they would want to go through something like that with the first nomination," said one of the Republican leadership aides.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) told reporters that he had not been consulted. Asked whether he would support Holder, he said, "Too soon for me to say. I'd have to take a much closer look at his record and talk to him and think about it."
Specter, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said the Rich pardon "would be a factor to consider. I wouldn't want to articulate it among the top items, but it's worthwhile to look at."
Supporters describe Holder as someone capable of engineering the kind of swift and significant course corrections that Obama has pledged to make at the Justice Department, which has been beset in recent years by one political controversy after another.
"He wanted the next attorney general to make broad reforms at DOJ -- someone that has a broad enough basis of support that they can do it," said the source close to the transition team, who was not authorized to speak publicly for Obama. "It's pretty damn close to a deal. They've done the sounding out and gotten good response back."
The Justice Department's inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, noted in a report recently that restoring confidence in the Justice Department should be a top priority, given all of the controversies under the leadership of former attorneys general John Ashcroft and Alberto R. Gonzales -- including politically motivated hirings and firings of prosecutors and other Justice Department officials.
The new attorney general will also have to help execute Obama's pledge to shut down the war crimes tribunals underway at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and try terrorism suspects elsewhere, as well as deal with other politically contentious issues such as warrantless wiretapping and what constitutes torture in the interrogations of terrorism suspects.
Holder is perhaps best known as an aggressive prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office who tackled political corruption cases, including one that led to the fall of Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.