WASHINGTON -- Administration officials said yesterday that Robert M. Gates remained the top candidate for director of central intelligence and could be named in the next two days if the White House did not uncover signs that there would be a major Senate battle over his confirmation.
White House aides believe, officials said, that such a battle is probably the only thing that could derail the choice of Mr. Gates, who is deputy national security adviser.
But the delay in the announcement has prompted questions on Capitol Hill and underscored President Bush's possible concern about reopening the debate over the Iran-contra affair.
Mr. Gates, who was deputy director of central intelligence at the time of the Iran-contra affair, was nominated for the post of director in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan. Mr. Gates withdrew his name because of questions about what he knew of the affair and his action in helping prepare congressional testimony for the director, William J. Casey.
Officials said that while the White House knows the matter will come up, no great opposition to an appointment has been detected. The White House has been told by Sen. David L. Boren, the Oklahoma Democrat who is chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, and Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who is his party's senior member on the panel, that Mr. Gates can win confirmation.
"You never can predict, but unless something comes up that's totally new to me, I wouldn't see, fundamentally, any great problem here," Senator Boren said yesterday. He said he told the White House there was "a general likelihood" that Mr. Gates would be confirmed.
Since William H. Webster resigned as director of central intelligence last week, the congressional intelligence committees have been examining Mr. Gates' record and reviewing findings of both the congressional investigation into Iran-contra and the one by Lawrence E. Walsh, the special prosecutor. But Mr. Gates did not come in for much criticism in the congressional report and has never been regarded as a subject of the Walsh investigation.
The White House had been expecting Mr. Webster to resign for months, and Mr. Gates had long been considered the leading contender to replace Mr. Webster.
But officials said yesterday that the White House was caught by surprise last week when Mr. Webster's resignation finally came in, and Mr. Bush left for Camp David on Friday without naming a successor or even discussing the job with Mr. Gates. "The president kept this close to his chest all weekend," one official said. "That had people, especially Bob Gates, on the edge of their seats."
Mr. Bush returned from Camp David yesterday evening and officials said they expected an announcement on the post as early as today.