Richard Nixon beat him in 1972 and he dropped out of the presidential race last year. But George McGovern may still be president -- if not of the country, than at least of a small liberal arts college here.

The former South Dakota senator is one of the candidates under consideration to head St. John's College when the job falls open next spring, and the 400-student campus is abuzz with debate over the possible selection of a "big name" president.

A selection committee is scheduled to meet in New York City today to start whittling down the names. But so far committee members are keeping silent about whether McGovern is a leading contender.

"We're not divulging who any of the candidates are," insisted James Frame, the 1950 St. John's graduate who chairs the committee. However, word about McGovern's interest had leaked out earlier.

Frame said that the committee is starting with a list of more than 200 names and hopes to be able to appoint the president for the Annapolis campus and another president for St. John's second campus in Santa Fe, N.M., by next June.

McGovern, a former university professor, said that he is interested in the job, but won't decide whether he will take it until he gets a firm offer. He did say, however, that Annapolis is a fine place to live, and that he's long been a fan of the college.

The attraction, "first and foremost," is St. John's "high academic standards, and the strong liberal arts tradition, the emphasis on the classics and the Great Books," McGovern said in an interview. "That appeals to me. From everything I can learn about it, the kind of education you get there is what the founding fathers got 200 years ago."

Students at St. John's study around 150 writings -- "the Great Books" -- of Western civilization, which they discuss in seminars and tutorials. There are no exams, varsity sports, or fraternities or sororities. Grades are recorded in secret and made available only for the purpose of allowing students to apply to graduate schools.

"I think it would be good to get George McGovern," said Margaret Parish, editor of the campus newspaper. "As far as I can tell, it's a pretty popular choice. She said McGovern's reputation as a liberal Democrat would probably sit well with most students, although certainly not all of them. "It would make the college better known," she said.

"I think it's an excellent idea," said Paul Argodale, a sophomore. "I like McGovern a lot. I happen to be very liberal in my politics, which has more than a little to do with it. But even people that are conservative seem to like the idea. He's a name."

And a big name to draw attention to the small college would be good, Argodale said: Last summer, he was working for a tire company in the District, and when he told people where he went to school hardly anybody had heard of it.

McGovern, who has been working the college lecture circuit of late, says St. John's may be the perfect place for him.

"I love university students," said McGovern, who was a political science professor before entering Congress in 1956. "I've had feelers, but frankly I haven't been ready to settle down.

"The year I left the Senate, in '81, there were two or three colleges that approached me. But this is really the first time I've given anyone the go-ahead."

McGovern, who owns a house in Crownsville, near Annapolis, said he'd rather preside over the Annapolis campus than its sister in New Mexico.

"I'd be more interested in the job if the two campuses were left combined," he added. "I think they are making a mistake, going into a divided presidency."

The college, one of the first in America, was founded in 1696 as King William's School. The southwestern campus was opened in 1964. One college president has since served both campuses, but last April, the college's board of governors and trustees voted to appoint one president for each campus.

The issue of divided leadership, which had been raised several times before, was hotly debated, with some faculty members fearing it would eventually lead to truly separate colleges. Others felt the newer, far-flung Santa Fe campus suffered from having to share its president with Annapolis.

One joke making the rounds at St. John's is that McGovern should be appointed president of the Annapolis campus and Richard Nixon be given Santa Fe: Nixon could raise funds everywhere but Massachusetts and the District, which would be McGovern's territory.

McGovern, however, is keeping his distance from such debate. While making it clear he's interested in the job, he doesn't promise to take it if it's offered.

"I haven't gotten into a big stew about it," he said. "There's a couple of other things I'm interested in. I haven't really sought out this job. I've been enjoying the lecture circuit.