WASHINGTON – White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, a Texan and confidant of President Bush, is suddenly the focus of intense speculation that he will be Bush’s choice to fill a Supreme Court vacancy when it arises.

Although there is no immediate opening, Bush’s election victory and the illness of Chief Justice William Rehnquist have focused observers’ attention on the near certainty of one or more openings in the next four years.

And Gonzales, 49, makes everyone’s short list of Supreme Court prospects.

“We certainly think that he would be a wonderful pick for the president to make,” said Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “We would love to see a Hispanic on the Supreme Court.”

Hispanic organizations are already mobilizing in support of what would be the first Latino appointment to the court.

“We hear his name first,” said Jim Backlin, vice president of legislative affairs for the Christian Coalition. “We think he’s probably going to be the one President Bush nominates.”

Bush, asked at a news conference Thursday about filling Supreme Court slots, noted there’s no vacancy, but added, “When I told the people on the campaign trail that I’ll pick somebody who knows the difference between personal opinion and the strict interpretation of the law … I meant what I said.”

Gonzales, a San Antonio native, has been at Bush’s side for years, as his general counsel when Bush was governor of Texas, then as Texas secretary of state and now as Bush’s White House counsel. Gonzales also served on the Texas Supreme Court from 1999 to 2000.

“He would be welcomed warmly in the Senate,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “He is an outstanding jurist. The president thinks enough of him to make him his own lawyer.”

Gonzales may face opposition, but it’s uncertain how much. He has written controversial memos, including one that surfaced during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal that had said foreign detainees were not entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions. Human rights groups said that legal interpretation contributed to the climate of abuse.

“There are definitely serious questions and troubling concerns that would be raised,” said Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director of People for the American Way. “We and others would look at the memos. They raise serious questions about his views on constitutional liberties and human rights.”

Gonzales also has connections to scandal-ridden energy giant Enron. He is a former partner in the Houston law firm Vinson and Elkins, which represented Enron. He also received $6,500 in campaign contributions from the company when he ran for re-election to the Texas Supreme Court.

Gonzales did not respond to a request for an interview. It’s unclear what effect such criticism might have on his nomination.

The son of migrant farm workers, Gonzales used to toil alongside his family, picking cotton. After a few years in the Air Force, he graduated from Rice University and went on to Harvard University Law School, getting his law degree in 1982.

“Judge Gonzalez would do an excellent job in any capacity,” political consultant Ray Sullivan of Austin said. With speculation this week that Attorney General John Ashcroft might be on the way out, Austin noted that Gonzalez could also be considered for that job.

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