WASHINGTON -- In a surprise move, President Bush has selected Agriculture Secretary Clayton K. Yeutter to be the new chairman of the Republican Party, administration and party sources said yesterday.
The decision apparently ends an increasingly embarrassing search that began when William J. Bennett backed out of the job last month. The former drug czar reneged on his decision to take the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, two weeks after accepting it at a White House ceremony.
Mr. Bush declined to confirm his choice publicly yesterday. But, speaking with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before flying to Camp David, he said that "if Clayton Yeutter were asked, he would be a superb chairman."
Mr. Yeutter would succeed Lee Atwater, who is suffering from a brain tumor and is being given the title of general chairman.
Sources said the president offered the job Thursday evening at the White House and Mr. Yeutter expressed strong interest. The agriculture secretary has not formally accepted, however, and one Yeutter associate said it could be Monday before he gives the president a final answer. Mr. Yeutter refused to comment when questioned yesterday.
In recent weeks, a long list of Republican officials and political consultants has been considered for the top party post, and all of them reportedly indicated that they were not interested. Among the factors leading some to reject the job was the perception that the new chairman would be subordinate to John H. Sununu, the controversial White House chief of staff, Republicans said.
News reports that highlighted, and even ridiculed, Mr. Bush's failure to fill the RNC job may have forced White House officials to speed up the process.
"They're finally listening to us that this is embarrassing," said a Republican Party official.
"They've been offering it to everybody and his brother," remarked Stephen W. Roberts, a Republican committeeman from Iowa, adding that Mr. Yeutter would be an able spokesman for the party.
Other Republicans, however, were less complimentary. Noting Mr. Yeutter's lack of campaign experience, one national committee member responded with a barnyard expletive when informed of the choice.
A former Reagan White House assistant termed Mr. Yeutter a "crazy" choice, describing him as a "technocrat" whose appointment was a sign of Mr. Bush's desperation.
Representative Helen Delich Bentley, a national committeewoman from Maryland, expressed disappointment that Mr. Bush had failed to choose someone "who had been directly involved in political races," as either a candidate or a campaign manager.
However, Charles Black, the chief RNC spokesman, praised Mr. Yeutter as "one of the smartest and most articulate" members of the Bush Cabinet. He said the agriculture secretary was "fairly well known" in party circles and would be able to hire experienced political help at party headquarters to compensate for his lack of campaign experience.
A wealthy Nebraska farmer with degrees in law and agricultural economics, Mr. Yeutter, 60, has held policy-making positions in the last four Republican administrations. He was president of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, a commodities futures market, from 1978 to 1985 and served as U.S. special trade representative in the Reagan administration.