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Transition Tests Clinton's Ability To Balance Competing Interests

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BETWEEN now and the time Bill Clinton is sworn in as president on Jan. 20, he will set much of the character of his presidency.

He will pit his aims and ideals for his government against the voracious demands of narrower political interests as he chooses most of his top staff and those who will hold Cabinet positions.

"We'll see what he's made of," says Calvin Mackenzie, a political scientist at Colby College in Maine. "We have a generation of people in this country who feel they were born to govern and they've been frustrated for 12 years." These Democrats' ambitions create "political maelstroms" around each post Mr. Clinton must fill, he says.

The Clinton transition team is making a point of its methodical and objective approach. The director of the team, Warren Christopher, is the reliable and unassuming Los Angeles lawyer who ran Clinton's selection process for a running mate, which was an electoral success. The search was marked by careful vetting to avoid the pitfalls that befell George Bush when he picked Dan Quayle as his running mate without extensive staff discussion.

Clinton's choice of transition chairman, Washington lawyer and former Urban League leader Vernon Jordan, reflects Clinton's often-stated commitment that his administration "look like the country" in its diversity. Mr. Jordan is black and Mr. Christopher is white.

Like the campaign, the transition is based in Little Rock, Ark., at a comfortable distance from the teeming talent pools and pressure groups of Washington. During the campaign, officials felt their isolation from visiting politicians and consultants helped to preserve their independence of judgment from the distractions of conventional wisdom.

The transition is opening a Washington office, but the geographical inconvenience of its Little Rock headquarters may be even more helpful than during the campaign to keep patronage seekers at arms length.

The most striking aspect of Clinton's choices Friday to run his transition is that Mickey Kantor was not at the top. Mr. Kantor, another Los Angeles lawyer, was chairman of the Clinton campaign and head of the quiet committee Clinton named several weeks before the election to begin transition planning.

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