“E-mails have been pouring into Ken Salazar's old digs at the Colorado Attorney General's Office. Many are from supporters sending congratulations and good wishes.

“But others express dismay.

“The writers are wondering what on earth the Democratic senator is doing buddying up to the likes of Alberto Gonzales. Is this the first sign of a Ben Nighthorse Campbell-style defection to the Republican ranks after using the Democratic Party to get elected?

“After all, when Salazar introduced President Bush's nominee for U.S. attorney general - a guy opposed by retired generals, veterans groups, civil rights organizations, even the Mexican American Political Association - it was one of his very first official acts as a senator.

“And given that Gonzales' confirmation is virtually guaranteed by the Republican majority in the Senate, Salazar's support was wildly unnecessary.

“Sure, Gonzales would be the first Latino to head Justice. But this guy brings plenty of smelly baggage to the job.

“Among other things, he was a partner in the Texas law firm that represented Enron and Halliburton, both under federal investigation. He said he "spent hours grilling" Bernard Kerik and recommended him for secretary of homeland security. And Kerik is the guy who had to withdraw from consideration after his nanny problems, his girlfriend problems and his relationship with a guy indicted for mob activities were revealed.

“Even more disturbing, Gonzales advised the president that the Geneva Convention outlawing the torture of prisoners of war was "quaint" and "obsolete," and signed off on a memo that defined torture as "injury such as death, organ failure or serious impairment of bodily functions," a definition narrow enough to authorize most of the abuses at Abu Ghraib or even those inflicted by the Viet Cong at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

“So what does Salazar see in this guy?

"I'm particularly moved by his historical upbringing," the senator said, "the fact that he came from a place with 11 in his family all cramped into two rooms, his father with only a second-grade education." He went on to graduate from Harvard Law School, to become a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, to advise the president. Salazar said he was impressed with "the fact he's overcome those kinds of very significant obstacles to become a successful lawyer."

“The lessons from a hardscrabble childhood are invaluable, Salazar said. "And his real-life experience will inform him in his role as attorney general," he said.

“But a whole lot of his real-life experience has been as a loyal adviser to the president, one whose opinions often have provided legal cover - if only temporarily until the Supreme Court overruled them - for an administration bent on ignoring international law.

“The concerns that Gonzales has appeared to authorize torture "are very serious questions that need to be asked," Salazar said. "And they are being asked in these confirmation hearings. He needs to explain his role."

“There's a chance that information will emerge from the hearings that will persuade him to vote against Gonzales' confirmation.

“"That's a distinct possibility," Salazar said. "But I'm hopeful that will not be the case."

“Nativo Vigil Lopez, president of the Mexican American Political Association, told the Los Angeles Times that the nomination of Gonzales is a cynical ploy to exploit the Latino community.

“"There is no doubt in my mind that the ethnic card is being played here, and actually to the detriment, in my mind, of the Latino community," he said.

“But Salazar stands firm, saying there's a big difference between being counsel to the president and U.S. attorney general. "My hope is that he will exercise that kind of independence," Salazar said.

“In the senator's mind, supporting Gonzales is clearly an act of independence and political courage.

“But it will take real guts to withdraw that support now if Gonzales doesn't deserve it.”