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Ask a dozen loyal Republicans about Attorney General John Ashcroft and the phrase used most often is “lightning rod.” When critics use these words to describe Ashcroft they mean it pejoratively, referring to the AG’s tendency to incite such extreme reactions that at times even critics say they seem out of proportion. But when Ashcroft’s supporters call him a lightning rod, it’s pure praise. From their perspective, Ashcroft takes the heat for controversial administration positions so the president doesn’t have to. With his conservative credentials unquestioned, Ashcroft rallies the base of the Republican Party and at the same time deflects criticism from the president. As one former Justice Department lawyer in the Bush administration puts it: “Ashcroft can feed red meat to the troops and the White House can keep some distance.” If President George W. Bush is re-elected, Ashcroft’s future rests on whether his tendency to polarize Americans is viewed as a political asset or a liability. Ashcroft has not clearly indicated whether he wishes to remain for a second term if Bush wins, though he had this to say in a September 2003 interview with USA Today: “Any opportunity to serve the country should not be taken lightly. I would take very seriously any request for the opportunity to serve.” Ashcroft’s aides say he will follow convention and submit his resignation soon after the presidential election. It will then be up to Bush-if he succeeds in his bid for re-election-and a circle of close advisers to determine whether he stays or goes. Legal Times, a sister publication to the NLJ, interviewed individuals with close ties to the Justice Department and White House about Ashcroft’s role in the administration and the likelihood that he would be asked to serve in a second Bush cabinet. Most shared their views on condition that their names not be used. To some degree, the decision of whether Ashcroft will stay or go during a second Bush term will depend on outside factors, including the desire of the Bush administration to assemble a Cabinet that includes minorities in high-level positions. But the most important consideration, say several sources close to the administration, is whether the president finds it politically useful to have a polarizing figure like Ashcroft in his Cabinet. Should Bush turn his attention to his political legacy, he may instead choose an attorney general who is seen as more mainstream and who can be a better salesman for the administration’s policies in the war on terror. “With four years under his belt, Bush will look for a cabinet that is the most effective cabinet it can be. He’s going to be focused mostly on who can get the job done,” said a former Bush administration official. One of the Justice Department’s most important tasks over the next year in a Republican administration will be pushing for reauthorization of provisions of the USA Patriot Act that sunset in December 2005. With Ashcroft as the public face of federal law enforcement, it may be more difficult to win the necessary votes in Congress, much less to seek the expanded investigative powers the administration would like. Ashcroft declined to comment.

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