BRILLIANT. Indefatigable. Tough. Charismatic. A national hero with phenomenal name recognition. Superb communicator . Earned up to $23 million a year as corporate chief executive. Virtuoso negotiator and administrator. Glutton for homework. Tested by life crises. Brimming with novel ideas for tackling the nation's ills.

That man exists, and even though he says that his political leanings are Democratic, the Democrats -- desperate for a shiningpresidential candidate -- choose to ignore him.

He is Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca and, of course, there's a hitch: He says he doesn't want to run, says he detests politics, says he couldn't stomach the job. Not so. Only one of Iacocca's denials is undeniable: the first. He does recoil from running for the White House. He yearns, however, to run it.

The scenario that could bring him the presidency may be unclear, but Iacocca is a master at poker and at getting what he wants in life by playing his cards close to the vest. And nobody is more keenly primed to emerge from any competition as numero uno. The phrase is his. It is the theme song of his life.

To assess his situation it helps to appreciate what Iacocca isn't:

He's not an unknown or a dwarf. Thanks to his Chrysler commercials and his block-buster autobiography, as astounding 92.7 percent identify him correctly; 78 percent of those who know him also have a favorable view of him. Unquestionably, there is something distinctive and larger-than-life about him, a presidential air.

He is anything but passive or intellectually lazy. His family chronically laments his seven-day work schedule, especially the mountains of reading he takes home.

He wouldn't have to sing for his political supper. Even as a non-candidate he has to fend off contributions. "Big names want to give me $20 million at a clip," he has said.

No unpublicized skeletons are likely to lurk in his closet. While one can't ever be certain about hidden warts, Iacocca's life has been X-rayed for decades by enemies eager to do him in.

Closely examined, however, Iacocca is full of surprises. He is a private person, insecure, a hypochondriac, fearful of violence, and he hates going on TV. But Iacocca has overcome these and other adversities by force of will. Defeat stimulates him.

Born Lido Anthony Iacocca, he grew up in Depression poverty in Allentown, Pa. In school, Lido felt abused as a second-class citizen, a "wop." In his teens, rheumatic fever crippled him for months and took him out of contact sports forever. Classified 4-F by the military, he felt rejected by his country. Yet all this misfortune, along with constant prodding by his ambitious immigrant father, motivated him to earn degrees at Lehigh and Princeton and then to claw his way to the presidency of Ford.

Undercut and finally fired by a capricious and jealous Henry Ford II, Iacocca seemed to win the sympathy of every wage-earner in America who had ever got in trouble with an uppity boss. And then, when he engineered the most remarkable double turn-around in modern business history -- bringing back both himself and Chrysler (paying back its lifesaving $1.5-billion federal loan seven years ahead of time), he tapped America's bleeding heart for scrappy underdogs.

People who have worked closely with Iacocca are dramatically divided about his suitability for the White House.

"He'd be a terrible president," says Wendell W. (Lars) Larsen, once public relations chief at Chrysler, now executive vice president of IC Industries. "He's very thin-skinned. Any hint of criticism he can't stand."

"It would be a helluva transformation," says the UAW's Douglas Fraser. "Lee is an impatient man. His tolerance level is not very high."

But one former ghostwriter who had seen Iacocca fling speech drafts to the floor and stomp on them said he nonetheless would trust Iacocca with The Bomb.

"Intimidation is an important fact of life with Lee," says Robert S. (Steve) Miller, Jr., Chrysler vice chairman and its principal financial man. "But it's always pointed, articulate, it's aimed at a business problem, it's not personal, and it's not incoherent expletives."

Even some of Iacocca's worst enemies think he'd make a terrific president. When Harley Copp was Ford's director of engineering technical services, Iacocca stopped speaking to him because of his criticism of the notorously flammable Pinto, which Iacocca had pushed relentlessly. "His ambition exceeded his morality," Copp testified as expert witness in one of the many lawsuits by Pinto owners against the manufacturer.

Would Copp nevertheless vote for Iacocca? "I would," he says, "I sure would." Why? "He's the world's greatest salesman." Copp, like other Iacocca observers, argues that a president has to get his way with adversasies, such as the Soviets. Moreover, success has matured Iacocca, Copp believes. "I think he'd have a deep sense of responsibility."

On many domestic issues -- civil rights, poverty, abortion, privacy, education, among others -- Iacocca's record offers mostly blanks. In some areas, the evidence is negative (Chrysler is the only large auto company without a female officer). In others, his inclinations appear vaguely benign, such as this statement to Life Magazine: "For a society as rich as ours, not to be taking care of our sick people is crazy."

More relevant, Iacocca is obsessed with self-improvement and new approaches. He demands that associates zero in on "the ABC's" of issues. Associates say he grasps complex new technical material with astonishing rapidity and can sit silently through long, stormy meetings without taking notes, and then marshall the discussion's critical points into an action plan.

Iacocca displays near-manic zeal for getting the economy under control. "I could handle the economy in six months," he told The Wall Street Journal in 1982. He since has come out for tax increases to reduce the deficit, including a gasoline tax of up to 25 cents per gallon at the pump; a Marshall plan to rebuild American industry; a new agency to restructure industrial debt; trade barriers, including a special tax on Japanese tax imports; interest rates set by law; and other government intervention. He'd also come straight out with an unsettling word. He'd demand "sacrifice." He uses the word often.

In light of the embarrassing personal disclosures about candidates Hart, Biden and Dukakis, I searched for unsuspected strength or rot in Iacocca's presidential timber by submitting my biographical manuscript to three scholars.

One of them, James David Barber, professor of political science at Duke University and author of "The Presidential Character -- Predicting Performance in the White House," spotted two credit items that I had overlooked on the Iacocca ledger.

Barber believes that one of these factors is invariably revealing: The leader's first independent political or quasi-political experience. Barber explains: "Typically he grasps that style and hangs on to it. Much later, coming into the presidency, something in him remembers this earlier victory and he re-emphasizes the style that made it happen."

The watershed breakthrough in Iacocca's career path was the 1964 Ford Mustang. It was truly his baby. Everybody had been dazzled by the racy pre-production two-seater model, especially Lee's friends, the racing buffs. But Iacocca vetoed the design and ordered two rear seats installed, turning it into a family car and a legendary hit. Iacocca had proved to be his own creative man.

Barber also attributes key importance to a leader's ability not to take himself too seriously, and Iacocca is a great self-kidder. "I've got to stop getting fired like this," he said after his dismissal from one of the committees working on the reconstruction of Ellis Island. "People are going to start thinking I'm a drifter."

All three of my consultants disagreed with my belief that Iacocca's experience in grappling with the likes of Henry Ford II and the politicians who tried to block the Chrysler loan guarantee constitutes training for the political arena." Barber called such a switch "not totally implausible" but "one terrific leap." He also noted that while business works along hierarchical lines, politics is lubricated by consensus.

My second consultant, Harvard historian Richard E. Neustadt, who served in the Kennedy, Johnson and Carter White Houses and is the author of "Presidential Power," shuddered at Iacocca's notions of "running" the government -- a feat he once bragged he could handle with a mere 20 or 25 "guys."

"Running the country?" Neustadt scoffed. "That's not what the president does! He articulates, he makes choices, he finagles -- or he doesn't. He may think he's running the country, but that's dangerous. He'll get frustrated. It reminds me a lot of Lyndon Johnson." It also reminded him of Richard Nixon's deepest difficulty: not a lust for power but the frustrating sense of powerlessness that tempts strong leaders to take rash and even illegal action. "I'm scared of drivenness, and Iacocca sure as hell is driven, like Johnson or Nixon," Neustadt said.

My third consultant, Bruce Mazlish, whose psychohistory, "In Search of Nixon," unmasked its subject as a dangerous neurotic months before Watergate broke, felt fairly relaxed about Iacocca.

"I think I'd like and admire the guy if I met him," he said. "He's got a lot of limitations, but he's done a lot to overcome them."

I believe my experts were a bit too rough on Iacocca and don't sufficiently appreciate that he is still evolving. His persisting curiosity and appetite for new ways to solve problems suggest a greater capacity to adapt to new crises than critics give him credit for. His nerves seem to be calming. His temperament is mellowing.

Given adequate health (he is 63), the gamesman Iacocca may not play his hand until 1992. He has said that economic calamity may turn the next president into a Herbert Hoover. By '92 the country would embrace a New Deal of Rooseveltian proportions. But I think the White House appeals to him right now.

"People are hard up," Iacocca mused to Life magazine last year. "They're looking for somebody, anybody, to listen to, and in the end the thing that distinguishes me from all the others is that I don't bullshit them."

Peter Wyden is the author of "The Unknown Iacocca," an unauthorized biography.