WASHINGTON -- Adm. Paul D. Miller hasn't been shy about advertising his availability to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
At a Senate budget hearing last month, the commander in chief of the U.S. forces in the Atlantic praised the Clinton defense plan for "striking the right balance" between spending cuts and combat readiness.
Then, borrowing an overused Clinton campaign slogan, he urged senators to "please put people first."
"Come on," a disbelieving former Pentagon official said later. "That's supposed to be subtle?"
Although Gen. Colin L. Powell, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, won't retire until Sept. 30, there is already plenty of behind-the-scenes jockeying to succeed him.
The post is more sought after than usual because the next chairman is likely to wield great influence over critical issues such as defense cuts and military restructuring. As the nation's highest military officer, he will be the top uniformed adviser to President Clinton, who must forge a new post-Cold War security strategy, but whose lack of military service has contributed to a rocky relationship with the armed services.
Mr. Clinton is not expected to pick a successor to General Powell until August.
But there is widespread agreement that General Powell, the nation's first black chairman, will be a hard act to follow. The charismatic Army general's self-assured television presence during the Persian Gulf war undoubtedly made him the most famous Joint Chiefs chairman since Gen. Omar N. Bradley, the renowned World War II leader, first occupied the office in 1949.
General Powell set new standards for the job, blending his military knowledge with the well-honed political skills he acquired as a military assistant to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger during the Reagan administration and as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan.
"Obviously, the next guy has to have a broad background," including Washington political experience, said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, who has written extensively about the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "He can't just be a warrior."
Another longtime Pentagon watcher, a defense official in the Reagan administration, warned that the last person Mr. Clinton needed was a "yes man."
"The guys in the military need someone they can count on to give the president the best advice and military judgment," he said. "There's a constituency the chairman represents."
Virtually all senior military officers know that anyone who campaigns openly for the chairmanship could ruin his chances of getting the president's nomination. So those coveting the job must find subtle ways to break from the pack, usually by garnering favorable publicity, making direct contact with the president or privately encouraging speculation about their interest in becoming chairman.
15 officers eligible
The field is crowded, if the current guessing game being played by military brass, current and former defense officials and other Pentagon watchers is any guide. Though Admiral Miller's name pops up in almost every conversation about the chairmanship, no one knows who of the 15 eligible four-star officers has the inside track with Mr. Clinton and Defense Secretary Les Aspin.
Despite Admiral Miller's Clintonesque testimony last month before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the four-star naval officer still has one of the best shots at the top job. And he has already met with Mr. Clinton.
When the president decided to visit with the military for the first time, he took a highly publicized tour of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier under Admiral Miller's Atlantic Command.
"Who do you think was first to welcome the president aboard the Roosevelt?" an officer asked.
The 51-year-old admiral moved rapidly into the senior ranks, propelled by more than four years as former Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr.'s chief trouble-shooter in the 1980s. Supporters say Admiral Miller has an astute sense of politics and public relations, but his detractors say he is too slick and ambitious.
Since taking over the Atlantic Command headquarters in Norfolk, Va., in January 1991, Admiral Miller has become one of the most visible architects of change in the military and a vocal proponent of more "joint" training and cooperation among the services. "The old ideas don't sell anymore," the Navy officer told an Air Force Association symposium in February.
His most recent initiative put a 600-man Marine air-ground task force aboard the Roosevelt before its deployment off the coast of the former Yugoslavia, a change that added more war-fighting capabilities to the carrier -- and more options for Mr. Clinton to consider as he weighs military action in the Balkans.
A 'cerebral' contender
Admiral Miller's strongest competitor could be Air Force Gen. George Lee Butler, 53, the commander in chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, who controls the nation's offensive nuclear weapons from his headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska.
Described as "cerebral" by admirers, General Butler has plenty of academic credentials to impress a Rhodes scholar such as Mr. Clinton -- including becoming an Olmsted scholar at the University of Paris, where the general received a graduate degree in international affairs in 1967. He also has taught political science at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
With the threat of nuclear war virtually nonexistent, General Butler has been in charge of consolidating U.S. strategic nuclear forces -- and has not flinched at cutting a traditional domain of the Air Force.
In fact, as director for strategic planning under General Powell, General Butler plotted the demise of the Air Force's fabled Strategic Air Command and replaced it with one that controls the Trident nuclear submarines as well as bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles. As a result, his own successor at the Strategic Command will be a Navy admiral.
"It was the right thing to do," he said last month.
Another Air Force candidate is Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, 57, the service's chief of staff and a lightning rod for criticism because of his belief that women should not be allowed to fly combat missions. Only last month, he told an audience of military women: "I just can't get over this feeling of old men ordering young women into combat. . . . I have a gut-based hang-up here."
But the general has taken great pains to show his obedience to Mr. Clinton. As soon as the administration ordered equal access to combat cockpits last month, he had the first women selected to fly Air Force fighters brought to the Pentagon to meet reporters.
After sailors on the USS Theodore Roosevelt mocked Mr. Clinton during his visit in March, General McPeak sent a pointed memo to 300 senior Air Force commanders to remind them the chain of command "runs from the president right down to our newest airman."
The general also has publicly promoted the use of air power in Bosnia as an effective means of stopping Bosnian Serb aggression.
Though no Marine has ever been chairman, Gen. Carl E. Mundy && Jr., the Marine commandant, and Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, are on some unofficial lists as dark-horse candidates.
But General Mundy, 57, is widely considered to have hurt his chances in January when he and others opposed to lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military circulated within the Pentagon a videotape of a San Francisco gay rights parade.
General Hoar, 58, who succeeded Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf as head of the U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa, has gained admirers in Washington for his skillful planning and management of three simultaneous military operations last January: armed peacekeeping in Somalia, bombing raids to enforce the no-fly zone in southern Iraq and interception of Iraqi-bound shipping in the Red Sea.
The Marine general and another long-shot contender for the chairmanship, Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, 56, the supreme commander of NATO forces, both testified with Admiral Miller at the Senate hearing last month. But neither uttered any of Mr. Clinton's campaign slogans.
An aide to Admiral Miller said later that the admiral's reference to putting "people first" was inadvertent. Even so, the message got delivered.