The wife of Rep. Willis D. Gradison Jr. (R-Ohio) is the leading White House candidate for appointment to the Interstate Commerce Commission, sources said yesterday.

Gradison, 29, the former Heather J. Stirton, is on leave of absence from her job as a rate officer for Southern Railway. Her husband, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, was an early supporter of George Bush's ill-fated campaign for the presidency.

Gradison joined Southern in 1975 as a management trainee and, most recently, was a rate officer until she took a maternity leave last fall.

Her job at Southern was described as a professional position in which she made no management decisions. A rate officer covers a certain group of commodities, doing research on the railroad's costs of moving the items as freight and on the competitive situation, a Southern source explained. He or she then works with shippers and receivers to negotiate a satisfactory freight rate, making recommendations to a rate manager who makes the final determinations, he said.

Sources said the possibility of Gradison's appointment to the ICC has caused some concern within Southern and the transportation industries because some have questioned whether she has the appropriate qualifications to be a member of the transportation regulatory agency.

"Being a management trainee doesn't necessarily qualify you to be a member of the ICC, which regulates all forms of transportation," a company source said. "Most ICC members have a broader background, and many come from outside transportation."

No one from Southern had any official comment on Gradison's possible nomination or would speak on the record. Southern is keeping "hands off," not supporting her nor putting anything in against her, one company source said. "A lot of people are very upset here, but we want to be friends with everybody," he admitted.

If Gradison is nominated and confirmed for the position, her past employment with Southern likely would require her to disqualify herself on issues affecting the railroad. The ICC's canons of conduct state that members should disqualify themselves "in any matter in which their impartiality might reasonably be questioned. They should weigh carefully the question of their qualification in any matter where they or their relatives or former business associates or clients are involved."

Gradison declined comment on her possible appointment.