WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh is resigning next month to run for the Senate from Pennsylvania, President Bush announced yesterday.
Mr. Thornburgh, a popular ex-governor of the state, will be heavily favored to reclaim the seat of the late Republican Sen. John Heinz, killed earlier this spring in a plane crash.
The job is held by newly appointed Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford, who will oppose Mr. Thornburgh in a special election this November for the remaining two years of the Heinz term. Mr. Wofford, 65, a first-time candidate, was named last month by Democratic Gov. Robert P. Casey.
There was no immediate word of a successor to Mr. Thornburgh at the Justice Department.
Among those whose names have figured in recent speculation are former California Gov. George Deukmejian; former Illinois Gov. James Thompson; White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray; Deputy Attorney General William Barr; Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo.; Sen. Warren B. Rudman, R-N.H.; Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner; and U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Jay B. Stephens.
Mr. Thornburgh, a holdover from the Reagan administration, was never regarded as an insider in the Bush administration, and the manner in which his departure was made public reflected his role as something of an outsider.
Mr. Bush, after discussing the Senate race with Mr. Thornburgh at the White House on Monday and again yesterday, announced the resignation to reporters at a "photo opportunity" before a Cabinet meeting.
During Mr. Thornburgh's years at the Justice Department, many of the crucial decisions that would ordinarily have been made by the attorney general -- choices for the Supreme Court, administration positions on civil rights and on hot legal issues such as abortion -- were made for him at the White House, primarily by Mr. Gray and Chief of Staff John H. Sununu.
He loyally defended the administration's anti-abortion position, contrary to his own past position in support of abortion rights, and he has been a leading promoter of the administration's position on civil rights
Mr. Thornburgh is to remain in his job until "at least the end of July" to help lobby for the administration's crime and civil rights measures, said Mr. Bush, who praised Mr. Thornburgh's "wisdom and his support."
Mr. Thornburgh, who turns 59 next month, has made little secret of his national political ambitions and had been expected to run for the Heinz seat.
With few other key races around the country this fall, the Pennsylvania contest is likely to attract considerable national attention. Democrats currently hold a 57-43 edge in Senate seats, and a Thornburgh victory is vital to Republican hopes of regaining a Senate majority in the 1992 election.
Mr. Wofford will try to link Mr. Thornburgh to a range of controversial Bush administration policies, while attacking his record as attorney general, aides said.
"Dick Thornburgh's greatest contribution at the Department of Justice was to make [his predecessor] Ed Meese look good by comparison," said Paul Begala, the Wofford campaign manager. He cited Mr. Thornburgh's failure to remove himself promptly from the department's handling of a settlement with Exxon Corp. and others over the Exxon Valdez oil spill when he had oil industry investments that could have been affected by the deal.
Republicans are highly confident that Mr. Thornburgh, who was governor from 1979 to 1987, will have little trouble disposing of his less-well-known Democratic opponent.