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.

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