FOR THE FIRST time since 1977, we're facing an election for what has been called America's second most powerful political post -- speaker of the House. Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. is retiring, and Jim Wright of Texas is generally considered to be the front-runner to succeed him.

I happen to believe that there are at least three other Democrats now serving in the House who would be better choices -- who could be not just good but great speakers. But I also know that for any of them, it's going to be a long row to hoe.

I know because I ran twice for majority leader -- the best steppingstone to the speaker's job. I also lost twice. In my last try, my loss put Jim Wright in the position he's in today. I didn't mean it to happen that way. Maybe there's something for these three to learn from my experience as the jockeying begins for next January's vote.

I should have known early on that I'd never make it to the speaker's chair. Sam Rayburn, who knew a lot more about it than I did, told me so.

"Dick," he said, "you have to be popular in this place if you ever hope to sit in that chair." During my 34 years as a representative I was many things to many people, but I was never what one would call "popular." I was chairman of the Rules Committee and the Joint Economic Committee -- jobs that called for knowledge of issues and legislative savvy, but not popularity.

Where popularity did count and where the great Sam Rayburn was clearly correct was in the situation of the in-House elections.

Different members for a variety of reasons, some selfish and personal, some ideo-

Richard Bolling, a member of Congress from 1948 to 1982, is writing a book about the House of Representatives: "Process and Power: Glimpses of Democracy." logical and objective, have different views of what kind of a colleague they wish to elect as speaker. Frankly, some members prefer a weak person who will not be a strong leader and thus lessen their own personal power or the appearance of power. And naturally, most members have at least a small feeling that they would be a better speaker than most of their colleagues.

In the last 25 years a tradition has developed of the speaker working his way up from whip to majority leader to the top.

In 1961, Sam Rayburn's death left a vacancy, and I made the first of my big mistakes in House elections of this sort. I would have liked to be speaker some day, but I did not want to start by being whip. I liked my committee positions.

If I were whip, most of my time would have been spent not on the legislative process but on the "massaging and persuading" of votes from the rest of my Democratic colleagues at the behest, in the manner of and on the issues chosen by the speaker and majority leader. Were I majority leader, I would have a very tight rope to walk between conviction and loyalty on the issues, but I would have more influence on policy.

So I decided to skip over whip and run for majority leader, and did so for the wrong reason against the wrong person. I should have run for the speaker's chair against John McCormack, longtime majority leader, who won. I was sure that he would not be a good speaker for several reasons. He was altogether a decent man, but he was not a competent national legislator. He did not understand, as Rayburn certainly had, that under the Constitution he was the first person in the Congress, not the second or third person in the country's government.

In any event, his position in the "natural order" of accession, among other things, convinced me there would be no point in running against him in the speaker's race. But as majority leader I might be able to unseat him in the future.

My reasoning, though sound in theory, led me to an unwise practical conclusion. In seeking the majority leader's position I would be running against our very able Democratic whip, Carl Albert. Our differences were indistinct; our affiliations were very similiar; our methods were dissimilar but equally effective. After an intense effort of several days, we found that although we could come within a few votes of defeating Albert, we could not achieve the last handful necessary to win. I withdrew saying I had found I could not win and nominated Carl Albert for his unanimous election as majority leader.

Fourteen years went by. I returned to my role as the House Democratic leadership's main strategist and operator on the Rules Committee and was eventually elected chairman. I worked closely with majority leader and later, Speaker Albert. More than satisfied, I was pleased with what I could do through the Kennedy years, the Johnson years and even the Nixon years. So I was amazed to find myself in late 1975 thinking about running again for majority leader.

At first I ran alone, although it was correctly assumed that the late Phillip Burton of California would surely enter the majority leader's race whenever he decided the right time had come. I believed Burton would be a destructive force as either majority leader or speaker of the House. His ethics, manners and lust for personal power were offensive to me.

When Burton finally got into action (it was believed he had been quite ill, perhaps even had had a heart attack) he began to claim sure victory. Thus I became the underdog. I, however, was now sure that I had a good chance to win if the race ended up with a Burton vs. Bolling final round. John McFall, the Democratic whip, for a variety of reasons, simply was not developing much support.

It had always seemed probable that there would be a well-supported candidate more conservative than I, although I was more conservative than Burton. At first, it seemed McFall would play that role but as he faltered I felt that the old coalition of southern Democrats and city machine-based northern and eastern Democrats would field a credible candidate who would have a chance to win. When that candidate appeared, he perfectly fit that model.

Jim Wright of Texas had changed during his career from the hope of the Texas liberals to a moderate southern Democrat who often voted with the majority of Democrats in the House on national domestic issues. He was a senior member of the House Committee on Public Works and had demonstrated his willingness to help many other members by assisting them to obtain the projects that their districts badly wanted.

It was the conventional wisdom that if I survived to the final round I could rather easily defeat either Burton or Wright, although Burton would almost surely have the most votes in the preliminary three-man race.

What actually happened was that Burton led the first ballot with 106 votes. I ran second with 81 votes. Wright was third with 77 votes. McFall dropped out after receiving 31 votes.

On the second ballot Burton again led by 107 votes but with a much smaller increase from McFall voters, both being from California, than most expected. Wright was second with 95 votes and I was out with 93 votes.

I believed then and I still do believe that Burton or his managers, quite within the letter of the rules if not the spirit of majority rule and fair play, had been able to choose Burton's final opponent by getting a few of their loyalists to shift their votes from Burton to Wright on the second ballot so that Wright would defeat me and go into the final round with Burton. Then, it was believed, Burton would win handily. But he did not. Jim Wright was elected majority leader by one vote in the final ballot.

What had happened?

Frankly, I do not know. But I have a theory.

To begin with, about a week before the balloting was to take place I began to sense some slippage among votes that until then had seemed sure "Bolling" votes all the way. Those slippages were concentrated in two states and seemed to be concentrated in two big cities, New York and Philadelphia. I made a real personal effort to find out what was going on and came to the conclusion that Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago whose own delegation was clearly split between Jim Wright and me, had called Mayor Abe Beame of New York and Mayor Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia and persuaded them that as majority leader, Wright would be more helpful than Dick Bolling to their cities on the public works projects that big cities always desperately need. Convinced by this argument, those two mayors had then proceeded to lean on enough members of their congressional delegations to pull six or eight votes away from me and onto Wright's side. That was a crucial change that made the Burton ploy, which I described earlier, really possible.

I became convinced this was what was happening. There was no way that I could see to save myself directly, but fortunately, I did not forget why I was really running for majority leader. That remained, simply, to keep Phil Burton from getting the job and later the speakership.

As I spent the next week campaigning hard for my election I was, at the same time trying my best to convince some of my strongest supporters who were inclined to vote for Phil Burton in a "Burton/Wright" last ballot that they should, in fact, vote for Wright.

Again, I do not know what happened, but this is what I believe. I do know when Burton was defeated I was delighted.

Now Jim Wright is at the last stage of running for speaker. And the conventional wisdom seems to be saying that he is a cinch. That view seems to be based largely on the idea that you cannot beat someone when there is no one to oppose him.

Wright has been loyal to the speaker a high percentage of the time. Naturally, he had to protect himself in his constituency. And who knows what that part of Texas will be like six months from now, what with the downturn of the oil and gas industry? On occasion Wright has demonstrated courage and legislative skill -- most importantly in the energy legislation of 1977. He has done innumerable favors for a number of Democratic members. He has helped with raising money, giving speeches in and around campaigns and has been instrumental on committee assignments and legislation. Yet Wright has two major problems, in my view. He has an undistinguished record; and he's going to be under pressure from his constituents on energy issues.

Some members feel he is a great orator, more do not, and most think he usually comes over badly on TV -- not Nixonish but just too "good ole boyish." However, these things are mere opinions and deserve little, if any, consideration in a race such as this.

I happen to believe that he has wide support that is not very deep. Certainly, somebody will have to run against him or he will become speaker by default. He might make a good speaker and then again he might not.

On the other hand, there are three men in the House today who could be great speakers. One is Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who is running for president. Frankly, I support him in that effort. I believe he has a good chance to go all the way to the number one position of political power in the land. We desperately need a kind, compassionate and professional politician in that great office. With the exception of Jerry Ford, all of our last five presidents have either been abnormal or amateurs. The American system cannot stand this forever. But Gephardt would make a great speaker as well as a fine president.

Second, the finest legislator on the Democratic side of the House, in integrity, long experience, intuition and knowledge, is Dave Obey of Wisconsin. Many members say he cannot be elected to the House leadership because of his temper or his temperment. I don't believe this because every now and then the majority of Democrats break their pattern and support the best legislator they have available. They did with Rayburn, I suppose to their continuing amazement.

Finally, there is even a member essentially from Wright's generation who probably would make a very good to great speaker. He surely is by a long gap the best legislator among the major House committee chairmen -- the most experienced, the toughest, the most determined and the best staffed. Just as the country needs a compassionate and professional president, it also needs a fulltime legislator as speaker. The chairman of Energy and Commerce Committee, John Dingell, is just such a man.

But for any of these men to sit in the speaker's chair next year, they'll have to go down a long and very winding road to get there. I know. I didn't.

Richard Bolling, a member of Congress from 1948 to 1982, is writing a book about the House of Representatives: "Process and Power: Glimpses of Democracy."