They call it the nerd route -- this path between high-tech centers San Jose and Austin -- and Condoleezza Rice flies it every 10 days or so. But the former provost of Stanford University is pursuing not technology but foreign policy. As an adviser to Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Rice is helping Bush shape the positions he hopes to put in place in the White House.

Compelling, intense, bright, strong-willed, Rice has achieved remarkable success in her 44 years -- not least as President Bush's special assistant for national security affairs and senior director for Soviet affairs with the National Security Council at a historic time.

"I went in 1989 to the Bush administration expecting always to see a divided Germany, and certainly always to see a Soviet Union," she said in remarks to a group of newspaper executives here last week. By the end of her two years in Washington, Germany was unified and the Soviet Union's final days were at hand.

"Eight years later, I think much of the promise . . . has not been realized. No order has really emerged on the ruins of the old, bipolar order." This failure is something Rice would like to help Bush change.

The United States "has got to figure out what it's going to do with its military dominance. We can easily become the world's 911. We have immense military power and no clear sense of how to use it."

Rice supported NATO's intervention in Kosovo, but criticizes President Clinton's presentation of it. He should have stressed that U.S. involvement was essential because of Kosovo's proximity to our strongest allies, she says -- so as to reassure other nations that there are limits on U.S. interventionism.

Rice calls for stronger engagement with China and Russia as their economies evolve in this new era of globalization. And she says we must be mindful of "the importance of values and moral content in American foreign policy" -- but without talking so loudly about those values that we produce an international backlash against American arrogance.

"In talking with new democracies, it is sometimes important to admit that democratic development takes time," said Rice. In an interview after her speech, she criticized her "good friend Madeleine Albright," the secretary of state, for speaking of America as the "indispensable nation" that can see farther because it stands taller.

"The real challenge of the future is to build democratic values in multiethnic societies. The value that people who are different can live together . . . and prosper," she believes, is "perhaps the most important American value."

Asked if we should normalize relations with Cuba, Rice flashed back the answer: Not as long as Fidel Castro holds power. Castro "bet on the wrong horse," and he should pay for it.

Rice grew up in middle-class black Birmingham, Ala., her father a Presbyterian minister and university administrator, her mother a teacher. She took her studies, her sports and her music seriously, and thought she'd be a concert pianist. Not until well into college did she switch from music to political science.

A member of the Stanford faculty since 1981, Rice as provost coordinated an annual budget of $1.5 billion. Some, perhaps inevitably, saw her as dictatorial and inadequately mindful of the difficulties caused by the budget cuts she felt Stanford's fiscal health required.

Others call her brilliant, focused, exceptionally capable and found her effective at putting Stanford on more solid financial footing. A popular teacher before her administrative years, Rice told the Stanford Weekly recently:

"I tell my students that policy-making is 90 percent blocking and tackling and 10 percent intellectual. An awful lot of policy-making is mundane."

Rice personally is anything but mundane. There is about her an extraordinary mix of the gracious and the steely. A warm and dynamic speaker with an arresting presence, she can at times seem brittle, perhaps even calculating.

She shows a deep concern for inequity: In 1993 she started the Center for a New Generation, an after-school academy in Stanford's poor neighbor, East Palo Alto, for kids with good grades but little exposure to a demanding curriculum.

But she shows, too, a powerful skepticism for anything that smacks of softness or lack of discipline when it comes to extending opportunity. "It will be a slippery slope if people believe a woman's case passes if it's borderline, and a man's case doesn't," she once told Stanford Magazine regarding a tenure decision.

Though Rice says it's way too soon to talk this way, it seems clear that if Bush wins, she'll be his secretary of state or national security adviser. I'd go further: Whatever happens to Bush, you'll be hearing more of Condoleezza Rice.