For a while last Saturday afternoon, along about the fourth ballot, it looked like the special convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington just might elect a woman bishop.

From the outset, the Rev. Mary Chotard Doll of Cincinnati had been the front-runner in the clergy vote -- clergy and lay votes are tallied separately. By the fourth ballot, she had 72 clergy votes, just 8 short of the number needed for the majority vote.

The Rev. Ronald Haines, on the other hand, was the favorite of the laity from the start. With 95 lay votes on the fourth ballot, he was already 13 over the number needed to elect, but Doll led among the clergy.

Then two of the six candidates withdrew. Haines picked up two more clergy votes in the fifth round, and by the sixth, the long day was over. Haines had 80 clergy and 101 lay votes to Doll's 60 clergy and 53 lay votes.

The new bishop, who is scheduled to be consecrated on Oct. 29, is not only an outsider but virtually unknown in the Washington diocese. He lives in Rutherfordton, N.C., where he has been deputy to the bishop of Western North Carolina since 1981.

"I did not honestly know a living soul here," he said after the election, except for a seminary classmate -- who ended up supporting another candidate for the suffragan, or assistant, post.

He came to the attention of the nominating committee, he said, when his bishop, the Rt. Rev. William Weinhauer, learned that Washington Bishop John T. Walker had called for the election of a suffragan and "sent my name in."

The selection of an outsider as bishop is more the rule than the exception in the Washington diocese. "We have a tradition of skimming off the best talent of the church for the Diocese of Washington," was the way the Rev. John Baldwin put it in his nominating speech for Doll.

And Walker pointed out, in a conversation between ballots, that only he and retired Bishop William F. Creighton were already in the diocese when they were elected bishops.

Feminists both here and throughout the church had high hopes for Doll's candidacy. She was not the first woman to be nominated for bishop, but the circumstances of her candidacy seemed particularly promising.

Washington was in the forefront of the movement for ordaining women to the priesthood a decade ago. And Doll, daughter of the late bishop of Maryland, is known in this area both through family connections and through her years of study at the Virginia Theological Seminary across the Potomac in Alexandria.

And her qualifications are impressive.

But there were drawbacks, too.

Walker, in proposing guidelines to the nominating committee, asked for candidates who, among other things, knew the diocese and were close enough to his age -- 61 -- that he and the new suffragan would retire at approximately the same time, giving the diocese a chance to choose new leadership.

Neither Doll nor Haines fit the first guideline. Haines, at 52, comes closer to the second than Doll, 47.

Probably a more serious handicap for Doll is the rule of thumb in the church calling for 10 years experience in parish ministry as a prerequisite to being a bishop. She has been a rector only since 1980.

At a news conference before the balloting, Doll said in answer to a question that Washington had been the fourth diocese to ask her to run for bishop. She rejected the other three, she said, because the job description "sounded nothing like me" or because she felt she lacked experience.

Given the strong showing she made here, there's every reason to believe she will be asked again.