Virginia Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (D) has emerged at the top of House Republicans' list of would-be party switchers as the GOP caucus hunts for a replacement for last month's defection by Rep. Michael P. Forbes of New York.

Speculation has centered on what Republicans would do with Forbes's vacated seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, and GOP leadership sources said Goode was the most sought-after recruit for the plum assignment.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R), a fellow Virginian and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, has spoken frequently to Goode, a maverick second-term lawmaker from Rocky Mount.

"It's really no secret we are holding this Appropriations seat up for bid to some degree," a GOP leadership spokesman said. "If Virgil Goode or any Democrat is interested in switching over and taking that seat, we would be happy to negotiate with them."

Another leadership source said no Democrat was more engaged in discussions than Goode. But given the talks' sensitive nature, several GOP officials declined to comment publicly.

"Our view is any Democrat that wants to join our party of smaller government and lower taxes, they're welcome to," said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

A spokesman for Davis said that "Davis and Goode are friends and talk frequently, but there's been no direct approach on this issue."

On Thursday, people close to Goode denied a report in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that he was seeking assurances from Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) that he would be redrawn into a favorable district after the 2000 census and be pledged GOP support.

As for the congressman, spokesman Linwood Duncan repeated Goode's open-ended statement that "he intends to run for reelection next year."

Goode, 52, is a member of the Agriculture and the Banking and Financial Services committees and is one of a handful of Democrats who frequently defy the party's stands on taxes, guns and foreign policy and who voted for at least one article of impeachment.

Democrats in his tobacco-growing district on Virginia's south-central border, one of the state's most conservative, have increasingly chafed at Goode's independence. Goode has said he stays with the party because "my daddy was a Democrat."

A spokesman for Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), Laura Nichols, said: "We've long known that the Republicans are eager to have him switch parties. We understand he's under a great deal of pressure to do that. The members that have spoken to him told us they don't believe he's going to switch."