At the weekly meeting of the Democratic whips last Thursday, House Speaker Jim Wright read aloud a column in which David Broder outlined the virtues of House Majority Leader Tom Foley as a presidential candidate.

Everyone thought it was a gracious gesture on the part of the speaker. Nobody did a Priscilla Mullins paraphrase: "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jim?"

Since Gary Hart reentered the race, recaptured his front-runner status and replaced Jesse Jackson as the Democrats' No. 1 problem, the frantic, covert search for an "alternative" has been on. There is, according to one House member, "a lot of chatter about the speaker." The question is asked, "What's wrong with Wright?"

What's wrong comes instantly to mind. He is from Texas, which, he himself says, "arouses unthinking apathy in some parts of the country." Translation: he would remind people of his friend Lyndon Johnson, whose presidency collapsed in rancor. Wright's attention to the needs of the defense industry -- General Dynamics is in his district -- his solicitude for the oil and gas interests, his sponsorship of the scandal-ridden Synfuels program and his interventions on behalf of the savings and loan industry have raised questions about his ethics.

In the latest issue of Regardie's magazine, writers William M. Adler and Michael Binstein charge that in Wright's career is "a pattern of old-fashioned venality, financial murkiness, conflicts of interest, oily opportunism and abuse of power."

Wright retorts that people could look "until they are blind and never find anything dishonest or improper." Admirers wish he had put his holdings into a blind trust sooner.

Wright is dismissed by others because of what one Democrat called the "greasy formality" of his public utterances. The speaker is indeed given to high-flown expression. Some cite his looks, his narrow face, daguerreotype-parted ginger hair and flying eybrows as untelegenic.

What's right with Wright you can hear, surprisingly, from most Democratic members of the House. They contend that he has the qualities that voters say they are looking for: leadership, strength, daring, conviction. They do not say this for the record, as 70 Democrats are still committed to the failing candidacy of Rep. Richard Gephardt.

Wright is a bred in the bone populist. He grew up dirt poor, the son of a victim of the Depression. But his father instilled in him a love of books and ideas that makes him a cut above the more invented politicians now in the field. If it's vision they want, Wright has it: his father's dictum that every generation has to do better.

He started out as speaker with a couple of bangs that established him as a leader who would lead. He dispelled the mourning over the departure of Tip O'Neill, whose compassion was the size of his frame. Wright's first legislation was for the homeless. He spoke of the need for taxes to reduce the deficit, an idea that was regarded as mad at the time, but which has picked up steam since. He showed no fear of Ronald Reagan.

But it was his gamble on Central America that gave him the esteem he is now enjoying from his peers. Wright decided that it was time to resolve the question, and he took on the president, the State Department and some of his own Democrats to put his chips behind the Arias peace plan. The White House treated him the way it has treated all those with the effrontery to take seriously their occasional peace bids. The president condemned the plan, forced out the likeliest negotiator. Wright ignored it all, invited the author, President Oscar Arias, to speak to Congress, met with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and go-between Cardinal Obando y Bravo. When he was attacked in the press by an anonymous administration sniper, he stormed down to the White House, and later had the satisfaction of having the secretary of state sue for a cease-fire.

"Once he thinks he's doing right, he just keeps moving," says Democratic Whip Tony Coelho.

Some liberal senators think that a brokered convention would have to look at Wright -- provided, of course, that the party hasn't nominated Hart by that time.

They pray that the public's fascination with the Lone Ranger -- accompanied by wife and children -- will be as short-lived as the summer craze for Oliver North. The real optimists are those who look to Hart to self-destruct on the campaign trail, just as he did before.

Wright denies any interest in moving up. He could be pushed before it's over.