Those who know James C. Rosapepe well say he is prepared for his new job as U.S. ambassador to Romania. He's smart, articulate, listens well, builds consensus and is knowledgeable about and well traveled in Eastern Europe, friends said.

Still, it's not often that a little-known state legislator from College Park gets tapped for such a diplomatic assignment, a reward more typically given to seasoned Foreign Service officers or as a political plum to contributors with deep pockets.

"I was amazed when I heard . . . that he was actually going forward," said Assistant Secretary of State Rick Inderfurth, a family friend who once worked with Rosapepe's wife, television broadcaster Sheilah Kast, at ABC News.

But in many respects, Rosapepe's appointment offers a familiar Washington tale of how loyal service to party and the steady accumulation of well-placed political contacts reap an ultimate payday. As an Italian American active in drumming up support for the administration, Rosapepe offered President Clinton an opportunity to reach out to a politically potent group, said officials familiar with the appointment.

Known in Annapolis primarily as a media-savvy delegate who's one of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's strongest supporters in the legislature, Rosapepe has pursued a varied private career that has included consulting and investing in the nascent democracies of Eastern Europe and volunteer involvement in virtually every national Democratic campaign since he was 17.

Along the way, through various campaigns and Democratic functions, Rosapepe got to know people such as national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Clinton and Vice President Gore. John Podesta, Clinton's deputy chief of staff, has known Rosapepe for 25 years and apparently was a big advocate of his appointment.

Rosapepe, 46, professes not to know exactly what role those connections played, or even how he nabbed the ambassadorship. "I put my name on a list, but I thought it would be very unlikely," he said over breakfast recently at a College Park diner. "I was told later it wasn't such a long shot at all."

The son of two freelance journalists, Rosapepe was born in Rome and grew up in New York before moving to the Washington area in the late 1960s. His parents often reported from overseas and were strong proponents of travel. Rosapepe attended Yale University as an undergraduate but did not graduate.

Since 1986, Rosapepe has represented the northern part of Prince George's County in the Maryland General Assembly, where he gained a reputation as one of the brainiest legislators and as an outspoken advocate of increased education funding and other liberal causes. While nominally part of the House Democratic leadership as vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Rosapepe hasn't hesitated to go his own way: He infuriated House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) this year with his relentless promotion of a plan to extract more school aid for Montgomery County, Prince George's and other suburban jurisdictions.

A tall, affable man who sports rumpled suits and always seems to have a newspaper falling out of his briefcase, Rosapepe energetically worked his contacts in the media, in public advocacy groups and in the back benches of the legislature to keep the issue alive until the final days of the assembly. Although the school funding plan ultimately failed, some version of it appears likely to become law next year.

Even as Rosapepe has gained some measure of notoriety for his legislative exploits, his interest in foreign policy has grown steadily since an exchange trip with other young American political leaders to China in 1982.

Since then, he has traveled extensively to parts of the former Soviet Union, mainly through formal political exchanges and on business to promote his polling and consulting company, which invests in many Eastern European countries. On his first trip to Russia in the early 1990s, Rosapepe tagged along with his wife, who was then a national and international correspondent for ABC.

His ambassadorial appointment has been at least five years in the making. As a party loyalist, Rosapepe had been asked after Clinton's 1992 election if he was interested in joining the administration. At the time, he said he wanted to remain in the Maryland legislature and keep his private company.

But Rosapepe did say he was interested in some type of part-time slot, which led to an appointment in 1995 to the five-member board of the Albanian American Enterprise Fund, a $30 million U.S. investment fund that promotes business development in Albania.

After Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign, Rosapepe was approached again. This time, he expressed interest in an ambassador's post or some other "senior-level" position in Eastern Europe. Last spring, he was told he was in serious contention for an appointment, and he got the nod during the summer. His nomination sailed through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he was confirmed by the full Senate on Nov. 6.

"He's someone who the president and others at the White House have known for some time as a very strong leader in the Maryland House and someone who has been active in the party and active in the community," White House spokesman Barry Toiv said. "It's really the totality of the work he's done and the skills that he has shown that brought him to our attention."

With his new assignment, Rosapepe will face a challenge unlike any he has faced before. After running a small consulting company, he now will lead an embassy staff of 250 people. He will have security guards and be driven around in an armored car. For the next three years, he will be the voice of the United States in Romania, his face splashed across newspapers and television broadcasts.

The job is not a cushy diplomatic post. Bucharest is considered a tough assignment, without the charms of other Eastern European capitals such as Prague or Budapest. The country is still recovering from a stifling communist dictatorship that was toppled only after a violent revolution in 1989. Romania was not deemed ready to join NATO in its first wave of eastward expansion last summer, but in a recent visit, Clinton encouraged huge crowds of cheering Romanians to "stay the course." Rosapepe will play a key role in the country's continuing economic and political reforms, Toiv said.

"This is a big job, not a token ambassadorship," said former assistant secretary of state Bernard Aronson, a friend of 20 years.

Rosapepe and his wife recently completed two weeks of "ambassador school," where he learned the expanse of his authority, protocol, embassy budgeting and how to manage the bureacracy of the State Department. He's also meeting with government officials and academics who are experts on Romania. "There's lots of stuff I didn't know," Rosapepe said.

When he heads off to Romania sometime early next year, his wife initially will stay behind in Maryland, continuing to host "This Week in Business," a weekly news show aired nationwide on public television. Rosapepe has never been to Romania, so he's trying to learn everything he can before he arrives. He says he's excited about watching a country steeped in communism try to transform itself into a democracy.

"One thing I have been impressed with, and inspired by, is that a lot of people in Prince George's and Maryland take a lot of pride" in his new job, said Rosapepe, who already has adopted the diplo-speak of a veteran ambassador.

"It demonstrates the importance and the power of sharing our values," he said, acknowledging it may sound a bit hokey. "The United States doesn't have all the answers, but it does have experiences and opportunities to help build a better world." Staff writer Al Kamen contributed to this report. CAPTION: James C. Rosapepe will leave the Maryland legislature early next year to become U.S. ambassador to Romania.