WASHINGTON - President Clinton said New Hampshire lawyer-lobbyist Christopher Gallagher heads his list of candidates for the chairmanship of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Although Mr. Clinton left himself an out, saying he is still consulting with Congress on the appointment, the presidential endorsement over the weekend undoubtedly increased Mr. Gallagher's chances.

The fact it came from the President's lips may quiet the people championing other candidates, sources said Monday.

Favorites in the race have come and gone, most notably Arkansas banker and former Clinton aide William Bowen, once considered a shoo-in.

"The Clear Front-Runner'

Recent speculation has centered on Mr. Gallagher and Ricki Rhodarmer Tigert, a Washington lawyer with a background in international banking.

Administration officials indicated as late as last Thursday that Ms. Tigert was ahead. But the President's statement seems to give Mr. Gallagher the inside track, said Kenneth Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America.

"It's the President of the United States," Mr. Guenther said. "There's nothing else to say. Gallagher is absolutely the clear front-runner."

A Matter of Trust

Reached for a reaction to Mr. Clinton's remarks, Mr. Gallagher said he thinks the President wants to find someone Congress respects.

"He recognizes that the ultimate solution to the constriction of credit is for everyone to have a restored trust in the regulatory system and that begins with Congress," Mr. Gallagher said. "He understands this and is wisely moving very carefully."

Asked if he is that person, Mr. Gallagher said: "It's more important to get this job done than who does it."

Mr. Gallagher, as counsel to the New Hampshire Bankers Association, has been crusading to end the credit crunch for 2 1/2 years.

Regulators Blamed

It is overzealous regulators, motivated by a take-no-risks Congress, that are scaring banks away from lending, he said Monday. If appointed FDIC chairman, Mr. Gallagher said, he would try to get examiners to use their judgment again. "The referees need to get back in their uniforms and call the game," he said. "We're in this giant audit," he continued. "When you lose trust, you have a big void" and examiners are filling the void by insisting on underwriting standards that are too strict.

His open criticism of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act of 1991 could provoke opposition from Senate Banking Committee Chairman Donald W. Riegle, one of the law's architects.

Educating Clinton

Mr. Gallagher first met the future president in the fall of 1991. He was brought in before the Democratic primaries to brief candidate Clinton on banking and credit issues in New England. The two became friends.

The President told reporters in New Hampshire on Saturday that he "learned a lot of what I know about the credit crunch and problems with banks from Chris Gallagher. "It would be not only good for New Hampshire and New England, but I think it would be good for the country to have someone running the FDIC who understood the pressure on community banks, who understood what the credit crunch was doing to business development and what it would really take to end it" Mr, Clinton was quoted as saying by Manchester Union Leader newspaper.

"He's at the top of my list, but no final decision has been made."

At his firm, Gallagher, Callahan, and Gartrell in Concord, Mr. Gallagher, 52, has represented a wide range of clients, including the banking industry, environmental interests, and the motion picture industry. He has counseled the state bankers group for more than a decade.

"He is the perfect person for that job," said Gerald H. Little, president of the New Hampshire Bankers. "He is brilliant. He understands how the banking industry got the problems it has."

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