WASHINGTON -- Richard L. Thornburgh resigned as U.S. attorney general yesterday to run for the Senate -- a campaign already shaping up as a referendum on his often-controversial three years as head of the Justice Department.
Mr. Thornburgh told President Bush in a letter yesterday that he would leave the Justice Department post Thursday, carrying out plans he had made weeks ago to run for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.
A former two-term governor of that state, he is expected to be chosen by Republican leaders at a meeting Aug. 30 to run against Democratic Sen. Harris Wofford, who temporarily holds the seat and has already been nominated by his party.
There are two years remaining in the term of the late Sen. John Heinz, a Republican killed April 4 in an airplane crash. The successor will be chosen in a special election Nov. 5.
Mr. Wofford, who is not nearly as well-known in Pennsylvania as Mr. Thornburgh, challenged his expected opponent yesterday to a debate, noting that the state League of Women Voters has offered to sponsor two debates.
Mr. Thornburgh has no campaign organization and has done no fund raising for the quick 12-week campaign. He has insisted that he will do nothing political until leaving the attorney general's job; he has known for weeks that the state GOP would name him as its candidate for the Senate.
Earlier, the attorney general had made plans to quit, but the timetable for the Pennsylvania election was put in doubt by a federal judge's ruling in June that there would have to be a primary to pick the party candidates. But last week, a federal appeals court overturned that decision and cleared the way for party leaders to choose the nominees.
Mr. Wofford's campaign aides have already indicated that they will focus much of their campaign on a critical review of Mr. Thornburgh's years as attorney general -- first in President Ronald Reagan's administration and then in the Bush administration. Their main challenge, those aides have said, will be what they consider the attorney general's failure to react in time to major problems, ranging from the Alaskan oil spill to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International scandal.
The last holdover from the Reagan administration in a top government job here, Mr. Thornburgh came to Washington in 1988 amid wide expectations that he would restore the reputation of the Justice Department in the wake of repeated ethical controversies surrounding his predecessor, Edwin W. Meese III.
Mr. Thornburgh has been dogged, almost from the start, by controversy all of his own. He leaves office as he entered it, embroiled in the bitter political and legal battle over abortion. He has joined in urging the Supreme Court to overrule the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. This week, he has been in the midst of a new dispute because his department joined in challenging a federal judge's power to protect two abortion clinics in Kansas from blockades by anti-abortion demonstrators.