WASHINGTON -- Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Perry, the leading candidate to succeed Les Aspin as secretary, told the White House on Saturday that he did not want the job, Pentagon officials reported yesterday, but the administration has mounted a major effort to change his mind.
Mark D. Gearan, the White House communications director, said last night that the administration considers Mr. Perry "very much the running" for the job. He said preliminary vetting of his record had begun. But a close friend of Mr. Perry said the deputy secretary was "still quite reluctant on this."
If Mr. Perry eventually decides to stick to his initial position, he would become the fourth man in little more than a week to spurn the post.
A Cabinet member said he hopes that the effort to persuade Mr. Perry to reconsider would fail because "we shouldn't even think about having anyone in a job that important who has doubts about doing it."
The last thing President Clinton needs, the Cabinet member argued, is a resignation by a defense secretary six months from now, which he said would be "a real disaster."
According to a person who spoke with him yesterday, Mr. Perry, 66, a former engineering professor at Stanford University, told the White House chief of staff, Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, of his views in a telephone conversation.
Mr. McLarty is heading the troubled search for a successor to Mr. Aspin, along with Vice President Al Gore and Anthony Lake, Mr. Clinton's national security adviser.
Later on Saturday, Mr. Gore, a friend, told Mr. Perry that he could not let Mr. Clinton down at such a moment, one Pentagon official said.
According to a White House official, Mr. Perry subsequently "sent us some more positive signals" than he had sent when he talked with Mr. McLarty.
Bobby Ray Inman, a retired admiral whom Mr. Clinton nominated to succeed Mr. Aspin in December, hinted to the White House early this month and then announced last Tuesday that he was pulling out.
A final withdrawal by Mr. Perry would be embarrassing to the president on several levels. It is wounding, first of all, to have prominent people shun service at the highest level of his administration. Each time it happens, it reinforces the impression, which began to form in the earliest days of Mr. Clinton's administration, that his personnel operation is ineffective.
Most important, the unavailability of Mr. Perry would leave a gaping hole in a national security team that has been repeatedly attacked as inept, with relatively few obvious candidates to fill it.
Mr. Clinton's relations with the military leadership have never been warm. His avoidance of military service in Vietnam, his proposals to integrate homosexuals into the armed forces and his deep cuts in military financing combined to open the gulf and helped to undermine Mr. Aspin as secretary.
Before he withdrew, Mr. Inman seemed the perfect solution to the problem to key players in the administration -- Mr. McLarty, David R. Gergen, the president's top strategist, and Strobe Talbott, who has been nominated as the No. 2 man in the State Department. Then Mr. Perry, who is widely respected at the Pentagon and in Congress, seemed to offer a good way out. Mr. Inman recommended him.
With experience as an entrepreneur, as a government official and as a pioneer in high technology, Mr. Perry has an unusually diverse resume.
But he has never much liked the limelight. He has seldom been seen in public during his time as Mr. Aspin's deputy, leaving the limelight to his boss.
"It's safe to assume that Bill Perry is now the front-runner," a top White House aide said Friday after the president and Mr. Perry talked that morning in what was described as a warm session. Several senators immediately applauded the idea, and Mr. Clinton was expected to ponder it this weekend, which he spent at Camp David.
Mr. Aspin has agreed to stay until the Senate confirms a successor.