The Kerry-Bush face-off is a global election, handicapped and gossiped about from Tokyo to Trieste. But there's another global contest brewing, a little off the radar screen. It is a contest that features Colin Powell and Bill Clinton. It is a contest that could influence the global agenda. It is the contest to become the next president of the World Bank -- and master of some $20 billion in loans each year to the world's poorest countries.

There are no officially declared candidates as yet, and the winner won't be known until after the U.S. election. But the rumor mill is churning hard: There's whispering of Powell and Clinton, but also of Robert Zoellick, President Bush's trade czar, and Stan Fischer, former No. 2 at the International Monetary Fund.

And then there is another candidate, who should not be overlooked. The man who replaces Jim Wolfensohn, the bank's larger-than-life incumbent, may turn out to be none other than that very same Jim Wolfensohn.

Some whisperers doubt this possibility. In nearly a decade as World Bank chief, Wolfensohn has infuriated people on a bipartisan basis, and he will soon turn 71. But having gotten to know Wolfensohn as I've written a book about his time at the bank, I'm not fool enough to rule him out. He is a screamer, a schemer, an astonishing force of nature. If there's something that he wants, he usually winds up getting it.

Even before he went to the World Bank, Wolfensohn had racked up quite a resume. He was an Olympic athlete. He amassed a fortune of more than $100 million on Wall Street. He played his cello alongside Yo-Yo Ma and Isaac Stern and Vladimir Ashkenazy. He was the chairman of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, of Carnegie Hall in New York and of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton; he won the Gay Men's Health Crisis Award for Distinguished and Pioneering Philanthropy. You could never quite be sure who was going to appear at his Manhattan offices. It might be Jimmy Carter, or the queen of the Netherlands, or an opera singer, or a basketball player, or a Harlem dance group, or a South American president.

The World Bank president gets appointed by the U.S. government, and when the job last came open, in 1995, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin did not want Wolfensohn to get it. Rubin seldom lost an economic policy battle during the Clinton years, so his opposition looked insurmountable. But phone calls from around the world began to blitz Rubin's colleagues, and each caller emphasized Wolfensohn's Renaissance-man achievements. Wolfensohn was known and loved in environmental circles, in population-control circles and in financial circles, naturally: He ran circles around all his opponents. His lobbying won him an audience with Bill Clinton, and the World Bank job was his. The candidate charmed the president so completely that Clinton celebrated his birthday at Wolfensohn's home just five months later.

Twice during his World Bank tenure, the whisperers intimated that Wolfensohn was on the outs. In 1999, when his first five-year term was coming up for renewal, the Clinton Treasury was mad at him: He was harboring Joe Stiglitz, the bank's grenade-throwing chief economist, and Stiglitz had savaged the Clintonites during the Asian financial crisis. There was talk that Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers wanted to make Wolfensohn's reappointment conditional upon Stiglitz's dismissal. But Wolfensohn rode out this storm serenely, confident that Clinton's backing was solid. I once asked him how he would have responded to a Summers ultimatum. "I'd have told him to [expletive] himself," Wolfensohn responded.

Wolfensohn faced another storm at the start of the Bush administration. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill took such a dislike to Wolfensohn's flashy charm that he sought out candidates to replace him. But Wolfensohn proved his mettle once again. He cultivated Colin Powell at the State Department and worked hard at the White House. At a meeting in March 2002, when O'Neill tried to provoke a fight with Wolfensohn that might have provided the excuse to push him out, Wolfensohn responded with a quiet calm. Unbeknownst to O'Neill, he had just come from a warm meeting with Condoleezza Rice at the White House. The Treasury secretary could rant as loudly as he might please; Wolfensohn had outflanked him.

At the World Bank's 60th anniversary meetings this weekend, Wolfensohn will be campaigning behind the scenes, hosting the visiting finance ministers, hearing all they have to say, intimating his agreement. His public position, naturally, is that he isn't necessarily a candidate, and perhaps in the end he won't be. But Wolfensohn loves his position on the global stage as he loves life, and he has a roaring, restless passion for the bank's poverty-fighting mission. Three billion people, half of all humanity, live under the $2-a-day line. It's going to take a lot to separate this man from his mission.