Six years ago, Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., gingerly worked a reception room at the annual convention of the American Bankers Association. The presidential hopeful was in hostile waters, a liberal Democrat in a sea of bankers, but he had a navigator who all but guaranteed safe passage: Washington bank lawyer Charles T. Manatt.

Mr. Mannat may be one of the few men in American who is as comfortable among bankers as on the floor of. the Democratic National Convention. A Californian who made his money in banking before winning election as national party chairman in 1981, his political fortunes now appear headed for new highs.

Democrats have their best opportunity in 12 years to elect one of their own as president, and that has to help Mr. Manatt, an early supporter of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. And his Los Angeles-based partner, Mickey Kantor, is Gov. Clinton's national campaign manager.

Well connected even in the worst of times, Mr. Manatt and his law firm -- Manatt, Phelps, Phillips & Kantor -- would see their influence grow by an order of magnitude should Democrats recapture the White House.

Mr. Manatt's party credentials derive in no small part from his fund-raising prowess. Most years, he said, he brings in from $250,000 to $400,000 for Democratic candidates.

While primarily representing Golden State institutions, he has advocated interstate branching and more bank powers.

More Effective on Bank Bill?

And while Gov. Clinton might not "put forward a laissez-faire, omnibus deregulation bill" such as President Bush proposed, Mr. Manatt said, he believes the governor would be more effective in getting a bank program through the Democratic Congress.

The founding chairman of First Los Angeles Bank, Mr. Manatt is a past president of the California Bankers Association and has attended at least 20 annual conventions of the ABA.

He has no illusions that the Democratic ticket will ever attract much support from the banking industry.

"I would guess that 80% of senior, professional bankers are ideologically, philosophically, and programmatically Republicans," he said.

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