He's a bookworm who looks like Pat Paulsen. His idea of excitement is a long hike in the woods. He does impressions, for God's sake. He wears extremely bad ties.

David Souter is not your standard hunka hunka burning love. News that the 51-year-old judge had never married set off a flurry of speculation that the Supreme Court might be getting its first gay justice. When reporters unearthed three former girlfriends, it appeared instead that he is simply a scholarly workaholic too busy for romance.

Okay, so he's no Tom Cruise. No matter. He's a bachelor; more important, now he's a confirmed one. That makes him a hot ticket, the catch of the day, a Power Date. In short, Washington's idea of Extremely Eligible.

"His position will make him handsome to a lot of people," says Washington hostess Buffy Cafritz. "I can hear the footsteps marching already."

"David Souter better fasten his seat belt because this ain't New Hampshire -- and it ain't like living with Mama," whooped Rep. Charlie Wilson of Texas, one of the Hill's legendary ladies' men. "They're going to burn his door down. I can't think of anyone -- except a single president -- who would be more of a prize."

Judge Souter's sudden appeal has nothing to do with the trappings typically associated with eligibility. It's not about looks, money or sex. Once you cross the Beltway, it's about power, influence and the ability to look presentable in a tuxedo.

"The trappings of their power are seductive to anyone," says tennis coach Kathy Kemper, who recently married an investment banker after years of dating high-profile bachelors. "It's very heady to be at a party with the person that everybody wants to talk to. You can get very spoiled if you're dating one of these guys."

Women used to come to Washington to marry a senator; now they come to run their campaigns. But dating a high-profile bachelor is still a shortcut to the best tables, the biggest parties, the stretch limos, the power networking -- a personal and professional entree to haute Washington and beyond.

"A lot of women treat me differently," says single Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California. "You're a star. It's like being a member of the football team in high school. You're part of the varsity team."

Which makes Souter Rookie of the Year.

Supreme Court Justice William Douglas went through four wives during his 36 years on the bench: He was unattached for 17 months after his first divorce, less than a year after his second. His third marriage, to 23-year-old Joan Martin, lasted three years; three weeks later, the 67-year-old Douglas married wife No. 4, Cathleen Heffernan, a 23-year-old cocktail waitress.

During the Nixon administration, Henry Kissinger, who was called the "world's most eligible bachelor" (Prince Charles notwithstanding), created a sensation every time he appeared in public with one of his celebrity dates -- Gloria Steinem and Jill St. John. "After work I try to be with a beautiful girl -- if possible not too intelligent," he once teased. His 1974 marriage to New York socialite Nancy Maggines made front-page headlines and retired his infamous little black book.

Washington's dating game changed in 1987 with the Gary Hart scandal. The presidential hopeful's fling with Donna Rice wasn't just a question of adultery -- the press decided that the "character issue" was a part of the public's right to know, a fair test of political judgment. Everyone became fair game, even single men. John Tower's Cabinet nomination battle last year turned into a referendum on wine, women and fooling around, despite the presence of his current girlfriend loyally at his side during the tussle. The message was not lost. Even bachelors buttoned up.

To hear today's bachelors tell it, life is all work and no monkey business. Most of them show up at social affairs without dates. Ask a question about their private lives and they get that deer-in-the-headlights panicked look in the eyes.

"I work when I'm in Washington," says Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. "I'm at my desk at 11 at night. You can call me there."

"None of them -- with the exception of one ... and Gary Hart, of course -- are great womanizers," says Kemper. "They could be because they have so many women available to them. They could be the Warren Beattys of Washington. But they're really nice guys."

"In Washington," says Rohrabacher, "people are much more interested in politics than sex."

The Top Ten Who's eligible?

The short answer: Any man still breathing, legally unattached, with privileged parking at National Airport.

The long answer is a complicated socio-political continuum, with variables:

Size of the club. The fewer members, the better. A single president or vice president would be considered the biggest catch (there hasn't been one since 1949, when Truman's 71-year-old veep, Alben Barkley, married 38-year-old Jane Hadley). A Supreme Court justice ranks slightly higher than a Cabinet member, followed by senators, representatives and everybody else.

Contender quotient. Is his star rising or falling?

Flutter factor. What kind of media attention does a public romance generate?

Handicappers rank the 1990 lineup:

1. Souter. New kid on the block. Long-term job security. Former girlfriend Ellanor Stengel Fink describes him as "very funny, loves to tell stories, loves Robert Frost." Has one season to prove he's not a nerd.

2. Sen. Ted Kennedy. Keeper of the flame. Works hard and plays harder; he makes headlines just for breathing. Case in point: In a widely reprinted photograph, Kennedy was caught up close and personal with an unidentified brunette in a boat off St. Tropez, which prompted one wag to crack: "Well, Teddy, I see you've changed your position on offshore drilling."

3. Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder. Not only the nation's first elected black governor and oft-dropped name for the No. 2 spot on the 1992 Democratic presidential ticket, but cute, charming and funny to boot. Rumors of a romance with Patricia Kluge, glamorous barely-ex-wife of billionaire John Kluge, dominated Richmond cocktail parties this summer. "We're just friends," he tells reporters.

4. Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey. The ex-governor is a handsome Vietnam veteran with a yuppie presidential re'sume'. Flutter factor is up-up-up now that he's back together with his off-again, on-again love, actress Debra Winger; she makes him, potentially, an even bigger catch ("He used to go out with Debra, now he goes out with me").

5. Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy II. Live the fantasy. Play touch football. Have kids with an overbite.

6. Virginia Sen. John Warner. The sixth husband of Elizabeth Taylor is considered a catch for ambitious socialites ("He used to be married to Liz, now ..."). Not noted for sparkling conversation, which doesn't appear to be a detriment.

7. Marlin Fitzwater. President Bush's press secretary is charming, self-effacing, a hotshot tennis player, and knows Gorby. Forget dessert: The once roly-poly Fitz is always loudly on a diet.

8. Maryland Rep. Tom McMillen. The former Rhodes scholar and pro basketball star is known for his height (6-11) and his penchant for willowy, awed young models. Issued a statement in March denying any romantic relationship with Trump Toy Marla Maples after it was revealed that Maples had lived at McMillen's Atlanta condominium for several months in 1985. Dates said to revolve around fund-raisers and other free food.

9. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. Heartthrob of the Left. Known for unabashed ego and killer office hours; dates start at midnight. A tad forgetful -- his divorce became final four years after his separation, a fact that reportedly came as a surprise to some of his frequent companions.

10. Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd. Smart, hip, likes to play. Gets invited to the good parties: "Saturday Night Live's" 15th-anniversary bash, for example, which he attended with buddy John Kerry. "He's the only guy in Congress who's a bad influence on Ted Kennedy," says Washington writer Bill Thomas.

The upcoming nuptials of CIA Director William Webster, 66, who was finally snagged by 33-year-old marketing executive Linda Clugston, took one of Washington's most popular bachelors off the market. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell would normally make a "most eligible" list, but he keeps such a low, low profile that few know he's divorced -- much less dating a senior administration official. Ditto for White House Counsel Boyden Gray.

It's hard to even name 10 high-profile single women in Washington. And as for other professions, even celebrity bachelors such as journalists George Will and Michael Kinsley still can't match the name-dropping allure of political bigwigs.

"Is Paul Nitze on the list?" asked journalist Nancy Dickerson. "He's a honey. He's rich, 83 and still skis."

Barracudas They don't mind spending money. They throw dinner parties in honor of men they hope to meet. They muscle their way into glitzy parties. There is even rumor of a woman who bought an apartment at the Watergate in her campaign to snag Warner, who has a pied-a`-terre in the complex.

"The guys refer to them as 'barracudas,' " says Kathy Kemper. "They usually tend to be middle-aged women, very well turned out, and they make a beeline for the powerful, eligible bachelor."

Georgetown hairdresser Robin Weir had three clients who wanted to meet and date Washington's Most Eligibles. All three women were over 40, loaded with money and afflicted with a serious flush of Power Hormones.

"My advice to them was to attach themselves to a cause -- animal rights, beautify the city -- that would give them a social conscience," says Weir. "Of course, buy seats or tables at balls and fund-raisers and invite anyone single who they want to get their little clutches into. And it doesn't hurt to drop by their offices to say hi."

He told them it was just like lobbying: "You go after an issue, you go after a man."

None of this is news to Alma Viator, spokeswoman for the National Theatre, who determines the guest lists and seating for opening-night performances and parties. She has had women call to ask for invitations -- providing the perfect excuse to ask VIP bachelors to be their escorts. ("That way they can go fishing with an invitation to a high-profile event.") She has watched women change place cards at dinner.

But Viator's most memorable barracuda was a socialite who, already included on the guest list, would inevitably telephone before opening night.

"She would call me and ask which of these high-profile bachelors were coming -- particularly Ted Kennedy, Chris Dodd or, if they weren't coming, John Warner," she says. "Then she would ask if she could sit by them during the show."

Viator says she usually sat her near if not next to the senators.

"Why not?" she says. "I'm a romantic."

The Dating Game Most women who date Top Ten bachelors bristle at any suggestion of political gold digging. Any motivation other than a quest for True Love is dismissed as sexist, dated and demeaning.

Okay, okay. What follows are some examples of how some really romantic women ran into really swell guys who just happen to be powerful, famous politicians -- not that it matters, of course.

Passion for Politics: Lobbyists and staff members spend 12 hours a day hanging around politicians. The experience either sours them completely or makes anyone else dull by comparison. First-year staffers, says one Hill assistant, are always falling in love with their bosses.

Nancy Dickerson arrived in Washington in 1953 and landed a job as a secretary for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She met and dated Scoop Jackson, John Kennedy and Jack Brooks before her marriage to real estate tycoon C. Wyatt Dickerson; they were divorced in 1983. Nancy Dickerson was seated next to former deputy secretary of state John Whitehead at a dinner party at the Canadian Embassy in 1986. Turns out they had a lot in common. The couple married last year.

South Dakota Sen. Larry Pressler was considered a big catch before his 1982 marriage to Harriet Dent, a public relations secretary and volunteer on his Senate campaign. Ditto for Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole when he met Elizabeth Hanford, then deputy director of the White House Office of Consumer Affairs, in 1972. Hanford, already highly regarded in her own right, married Dole three years later; the two now preside as the quintessential Power Couple.

Current bipartisan alliances include Jackie Clegg -- a legislative assistant to Sen. Jake Garn -- and Dodd, who attended the "Les Miserables" opening with her; and Bush administration official Janet Mullins and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

Mutual Interests: "Of course, tennis is always a great meeting ground," says Buffy Cafritz. "If the woman is a good tennis player, there's an opportunity there."

Tennis coach Kathy Kemper served and volleyed with a number of power bachelors and met most of Washington's big names as a result. The guest list for her Easter wedding to investment banker Jim Valentine included best man Pressler, who introduced the couple, and NBC White House correspondent Andrea Mitchell as her maid of honor.

Warner's frequent companion, Cathleen Magennis, rarely appears in public with the senator but is said to share his interest in both horses and politics.

Star Power: "I like Hollywood starlets," Henry Kissinger once observed. "They are even greater egomaniacs than I am. They talk about themselves all the time and I don't have to talk about myself."

Debra Winger met then-Gov. Kerrey while filming "Terms of Endearment" in Lincoln, Neb. Winger was a frequent visitor at the governor's mansion, then the couple split and the actress married and divorced actor Timothy Hutton. Kerrey and Winger are now back together and she is a financial backer of Kerrey's new health club in Omaha.

Both Alan Cranston and John Kerry have been spotted with actress Morgan Fairchild, who is frequently in Washington testifying on women's issues. Gossip columns most recently linked Kerry with actress/author/dolphin advocate/former First Daughter Patti Davis.

Hunting Grounds Cozying up to Washington's top hostesses used to be the one sure-fire method of meeting the best single men. The importance of private dinner parties decreased, however, as women entered the work force and developed more social outlets. Nonetheless, an introduction over cre`me brule'e and brandy has sparked more than one romance.

Buffy Cafritz says she invites bachelors to bring a date to her dinner parties if she knows about a current relationship; otherwise, she asks them to come alone. After all, there are so few eligible men and so many women trying to meet them. A few of her friends have casually dropped a hint or two.

"They say, 'If you invite so and so, please include me,' " she says. "They say it with a laugh but it's a serious laugh."

When the Eligibles do venture out in public, they tend to favor haunts where they will be protected from their adoring public and the prying eyes of the media.

Private clubs such as Pisces in Georgetown and Desiree in the Four Seasons Hotel have launched more than one assignation and plenty of rumors. Hill bachelors have also been spotted living it up at the River Club and Anton's 1201 Club, both open to the public.

Watering holes near the Capitol are usually filled with Hill staffers. When congressmen do drop by, it's during the week; they fly to their districts on the weekends. Bullfeathers, on the House side of the Hill, gets a lot of representatives; the Tortilla Coast, on the Senate side, gets congressmen and an occasional senator.

Restaurants are traditional stalking grounds for both business and pleasure. The Monocle restaurant has served senators and representatives for the past 30 years; New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman brought in Souter the night his nomination was announced.

For the most part, his customers "want to be left alone," says owner John Valanos. "We make sure they're not bothered by outsiders."

Valanos admits that some low-key flirting does take place, but meeting a high-powered bachelor in a public place is more difficult now than it was a few years ago. "Senators are more discreet," he says. "Their faces are more recognizable than most of the members."

Or perhaps they were sobered by the GQ magazine article published in February. La Brasserie restaurant was named as the site of not one but two bachelor bacchanals: In 1985, Kennedy and Dodd allegedly made drunken advances to one of the waitresses; in 1987, a waitress said she discovered Kennedy and an attractive blond lobbyist in flagrante delicto on the floor of a private dining room.

Kennedy's office always issues a standard response: "It is our policy never to comment on this endless gossip and speculation."

Sacrifices There are women who complain that the press "goes wild" when they show up on the arm of a VIP bachelor, which they consider an invasion of privacy for both the man and the woman.

"If the public official makes a public announcement, then it's fair game," snapped one woman dating a prominent senator. "The rest is no one's business."

The press attention, she charges, discourages "positive" relationships. "It destroys any sense of private self they have. I think it really borders on indecent."

Still, the Most Eligibles are out there, smiling bravely for the cameras.

"I get tired of my colleagues saying they sacrifice for the common good," says Charlie Wilson. "When, in fact, you couldn't blow them out of office with dynamite."